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Bukayo Saka: Arsenal’s model student has a bright future
Bukayo Saka, 18, has gone from acing exams and learning to play left-back to starring in Arsenal's attack
Last Updated: 21/10/19 9:18pm
Jamie Carragher marvelled at his "composure and quality" on the ball. The notoriously hard-to-please Roy Keane talked up his "lovely" performance. Even Cesc Fabregas voiced his approval. "Saka is a player," he wrote on Twitter. "Eighteen years old and showing great maturity."
Arsenal and Manchester United's 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last month was a drab affair, another reminder of how far the two clubs have fallen since the days of their epic rivalry. For Bukayo Saka, though, it provided a platform to further enhance a rapidly growing reputation.
At 18 years and 25 days old, and making only his seventh senior appearance for Arsenal, Saka became the youngest player to start a Premier League game between the two sides. And at a ground where players far older than him have crumbled, there was little evidence of his inexperience.
In fact, Saka's starting spot now looks more secure than that of the £72m Nicolas Pepe. Unai Emery described Saka as an "important player" after the Manchester United game and started him again in the 1-0 win over Bournemouth. The academy graduate will be confident of keeping his place against Sheffield United on Monday Night Football.
And why shouldn't he be?
Saka provided the first glimpses of his raw talent last season - most notably with his man-of-the-match showing against Qarabag in the Europa League - but, much like one of his driving runs down Arsenal's left flank, his progress has gained momentum in the new campaign.
The winger scored his first senior goal in the 3-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt last month, finding the bottom corner with a curling finish from 25 yards out, and there have also been three assists, including the smart through-ball for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's equaliser at Old Trafford.
His work is natural and he is improving. He is helping us now as an important player.
Unai Emery on Bukayo Saka
It's that ability that has propelled Saka into the spotlight, moving him above fellow academy graduates Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock in Emery's pecking order, but what's just as encouraging for Arsenal supporters is that he is demonstrating the right character too. Saka is confident and mature on the pitch and humble off it.
"Respectful, very hard-working and always willing to learn," is how club captain Granit Xhaka described him recently. They are traits recognisable not just to those working in Arsenal's academy, which he joined at the age of eight, but also the staff at Greenford High School in Ealing, west London, where he was a student from the age of 11 to 16.
"He was a role model of a student," assistant head teacher Mark Harvey, who also taught Saka PE, tells Sky Sports. "A lovely and respectful lad with a really nice attitude. He just carried himself in such a nice way.
"Sometimes you can teach students who are exceptionally good at football, but when you get them on a pitch, they just hog the ball or they want to show off with it. Bukayo wasn't that sort of guy at all. If anything, he played down how good he was, which was really nice to see."
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Saka was training regularly with Arsenal by the time he started at Greenford, making the long journey from his family home in Ealing to the club's north-east London academy several times per week, but it is a testament to his attitude - and aptitude - that he never allowed his studies to suffer - even when his football commitments required time out of school.
"He did his GCSEs with us before he left and he did very, very well," says Harvey. "All of his grades were high, particularly in English and Maths. He also did business studies, he did RE, he did combined sciences. He just did very well across the board, which is amazing considering the amount of time he had out of school with his football.
"We tried to work with Arsenal as much as we possibly could. We knew how studious he was and the grades he was getting, so we were flexible about allocating him time out. His family were really supportive and always ensured he would do his homework, which for us was the key thing."
Saka threw himself into his football with the same dedication, rising through Arsenal's youth ranks and breaking into Freddie Ljungberg's U23s soon after his 17th birthday. At the same time, he was faring similarly well in England's junior sides, impressing coaching staff with the manner in which he embraced an unfamiliar position.
"He caught the eye in the same way he does now," Neil Dewsnip, England's former U18s coach, tells Sky Sports. "He was very quick, powerful and could hurt defences, whether that was as an out-and-out left winger or indeed as a left-back, which is where he played for us at the start of last year.
"He handled that positional change very well. He's very competent at one-v-one defending, so defensively he didn't really get found out, and he was very good at learning. He was open-minded to everything myself and my assistant, Mike Marsh, told him. He wasn't in any way obstructive to anything that any member of staff said."
Saka has shown the same willingness to take on Emery's instructions this season, his adaptation helped by the presence of his mentor Ljungberg on the first-team coaching staff, and there has also been evidence of his defensive awareness. Saka is averaging more tackles per 90 minutes in the Premier League than any other Arsenal player.
It seems he has even made an impression on Gareth Southgate, who name-dropped Saka when discussing England's attacking options prior to the European Qualifier against Czech Republic 10 days ago. A future call-up to the senior side would come as little surprise to Dewsnip.
When he had the floor in the dressing room, I found that he spoke really intelligently from a football point of view.
Neil Dewsnip on Bukayo Saka
"He knows what he's about and he's very motivated," he says. "I found him to be quiet, but not in a weak way. He had opinions and when he had the floor in the dressing room, I found that he spoke really intelligently from a football point of view. He was more than capable of making observations about the opposition's strengths and weaknesses."
Saka certainly succeeded in exploiting Manchester United's weaknesses at Old Trafford, running at Ashley Young at every opportunity and pouncing on a loose pass from Axel Tuanzebe for Arsenal's equaliser. The challenge now is to establish himself for the long-term.
"At first, young players get that luxury of opponents not really knowing much about them," says Dewsnip. "Bukayo is quick, he's strong, he can create, he can score, he can cross. But everybody knows that now. He will have to find other ways of influencing the game as well."
It is fortunate, then, that Saka has a proven appetite for self-improvement - and that there seems little prospect of his increased profile going to his head. At Greenford High School, where the staff proudly refer to him as "our boy" and where his signed England U19s shirt hangs framed on the wall in a reception area, he remains a regular visitor.
"Our old head teacher was a big Chelsea fan, but he had a really nice relationship with Bukayo and Bukayo actually came down to his leaving do last year with his father," says Harvey. "He had some pictures taken and spoke to a couple of our students. He still has friends in sixth-form here and he often comes into school and says hello to us."
The fact that Saka has friends still studying for their A-levels is a reminder that this is only the beginning for him. He does not even turn 19 until the start of next season. But all the ingredients are there for a bright future. From Ealing to Old Trafford, Saka is already making a big impression.
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