The Gunners teenager – who has 18 months left on his contract – is being eyed by several of Europe’s top clubs following his performances this season
Bukayo Saka is no stranger to hype; it’s followed him around ever since he first walked through the door at Arsenal more than a decade ago.
From the moment he was spotted playing for local side Greenford Celtic, it was clear that the pint-sized attacker was something special.
“I must have been about 13 or 14 and I used to watch Bukayo with the Under-8s,” recalled Stephy Mavididi, who like Saka progressed through Arsenal’s Hale End academy before leaving for Juventus in 2018.
“He used to just get the ball and run through the whole team and score.”
Such was his talent, Saka always played with age groups far higher than his own and no matter how big the step up was, he always excelled.
So it’s perhaps no surprise to witness the standard the teenager is now setting in the first-team, just six months after turning 18.
When Saka crossed for Alexandre Lacazette to score the winner on Thursday night against Olympiacos in the Europa League, it was his ninth assist in just 25 appearances this season. That’s three more than any other Arsenal player.
The fact that most of those have come while he’s been operating as a makeshift left-back make it all the more impressive. As does the fact he has scored three goals himself.
Thursday night was just another indication of the special talent Arsenal have on their hands. Players like Saka don’t come through an academy very often.
“I’m really pleased with the way he’s developed,” said coach Mikel Arteta after the win in Greece. “There’s a lot of highlights on him at the moment but he’s really humble. He’s always asking questions, meeting with my assistants and willing to improve.
“He’s a great kid and he’s very brave. He makes big decisions in the final third, he doesn’t hide and he’s got the vision and the ability to execute in spaces that are really tight which is a big gift.”
In a season that has been pretty miserable for Arsenal, Saka has been one of the rare shining lights to emerge and lift some of the gloom.
The fearless way he approaches the game and the way he has adapted to being asked to fill in at left-back has made him an integral part of the team in just a matter of months.
His first appearance of the season came in September when he was handed a start in the Europa League by Unai Emery and he immediately set the tone for what was to come by scoring one and setting up two in the 3-0 win at Eintracht Frankfurt.
From that moment on he hasn’t looked back. Whether it be under Emery, Freddie Ljungberg or Arteta, Saka has stood out and he has now made himself undroppable.
Sead Kolasinac, an international left-back, had to sit on the bench and watch on during Thursday night’s win in Greece as the teenager further cemented his place in the team.
“No one can live with him,” said Martin Keown in the aftermath of the victory. “Kolasinac is on the bench having to watch and suck it up.
“You take your chance and make your mark when you get the opportunity. He was third choice left-back at the beginning of this season, now look at him.”
In truth, Saka wasn’t even third choice left-back at the start of the campaign. But now, through the level of his performances when called upon he has made the position his own.
Long-term it is not where he wants to play, but for now he is just enjoying being involved and making an impact.
“It’s not my natural position but he [Arteta] has given me all the advice I need,” said the 18-year-old. “I’ve got Granit [Xhaka] behind and David [Luiz] supporting me. It gives me licence to go and express myself in the final third and do what I can do.
“I’ve learned a lot about how wingers in the Premier League play against defenders and how to position myself because in this system it’s different. I get to play much higher because the winger comes inside and I get to go.
“There’s a lot of space and it’s good for me.”
And judging by the numbers Saka is serving up it’s good for Arsenal as well. Of all the teenagers playing in Europe’s top five leagues this season, only Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund has contributed more than Saka’s nine assists.
“I think he has a very big future,” said Sokratis after the win in Greece.
“Bukayo is an outstanding player,” added Bernd Leno. “Hopefully he stays very long at Arsenal. He is very important for us.”
Those comments from Leno hint at Saka’s contract situation. It is the one potential dark cloud on the horizon for Arsenal when it comes to their prodigiously talented young winger.
He has 18 months left on his current deal, worth just £3,000 a week, and some of Europe’s top clubs are keeping tabs on his progress.
For Arsenal, it is a growing concern. Having invested so much money into Saka by bringing him through Hale End from the age of seven, it would be a hammer blow to lose him for next to nothing just as he starts to make waves with the senior side.
Talks are taking place over a new deal, but sources in north London suggest an agreement remains some way off.
“I just leave all that stuff to my agent and my parents,” Saka said recently, when asked about his future. “I just enjoy and play my football.
“Like I said, it’s for my agent. They’re sorting it out. Of course, I’m enjoying playing under the new coach so we’ll see what happens.”
Those words were perhaps not as reassuring as most at Arsenal would have wanted. But the fact is with just 18 months left of his deal, it’s the player and his representatives who now hold all the cards in terms of his future.
When you perform to the standard that Saka is, you are going to get noticed and the offers are going to start flooding in.
The teenager is in demand and if Arsenal don’t pay him what he’s worth, then the sharks are going to start circling.
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