Bukayo Saka has been getting his kicks this season while getting kicked. The 21-year-old is continuing a meteoric rise for Arsenal and England by becoming a key player in an improbable Premier League title charge which shows no signs of abating as mid-March arrives.
Saka has 19 goal involvements in the league to date, a tally of 10 goals and nine assists only surpassed by centre-forwards Erling Haaland (33) and Harry Kane (22) as the Ealing-born star has helped keep the Gunners five points clear of Manchester City with a relentless mixture of creativity and hunger for the fight.
He was recognised in Monday’s London Football Awards at the Roundhouse in Camden with the Young Player of the Year award, but it is not the first time he has been singled out for individual focus.
Opponents have tried various roughhousing tactics on Saka, even the artisans of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who tried to nullify the winger in last month’s meeting with a series of tackles that belatedly earned makeshift full-back Bernardo Silva a yellow card.
In a rare fit of pique, Saka reacted angrily to similar treatment in their next game at Aston Villa, after which manager Mikel Arteta revealed Arsenal would investigate whether there was evidence across recent weeks to suggest he was being targeted.
Saka is the eighth most-fouled player in the Premier League with 45 free kicks awarded in his favour, some way short of Crystal Palace‘s Wilfried Zaha on 64. It is those that have gone unpunished which cause some at Emirates Stadium a degree of consternation.
Sources have told ESPN that as is the case with many clubs, the Gunners have been in regular dialogue with the referees’ body, Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), after most matches this season and the issue was mentioned in those conversations.
But as is typical with a youngster who has taken everything that comes with a stratospheric rise in his stride, Saka isn’t about to make a fuss.
“I can’t come out here and start complaining that I’m getting fouled,” Saka told ESPN. “It doesn’t make sense, I’m not going to get anywhere with it.
“Arsenal have had the meetings they need to have with the referees and stuff like that. I feel like we just need to take it from there and see where that gets us. The way I play, I’m always going to attract contact. It’s a problem of how many [fouls].”
Some could interpret it as a sign he is evolving into a regular game-changer. “I’d prefer other compliments,” he said with a smile.
Saka’s serenity comes in part from his upbringing, born to Nigerian parents Adenike and Yomi, as well as his faith. He reads the Bible every night and during Monday’s awards ceremony, which raises funds for Willow — a charity that helps give terminally ill 16 to 40-year-olds in the UK special experiences, Saka is generous with his time, posing for selfies and signing autographs either side of discussing his game.
“I just try to be as professional as possible, take care of myself,” he said. “Eat the best, sleep as much as I can. When I’m in training learn as much as I can and in the games just play 100%. I leave the rest in God’s hands.
“God’s been taking care of me. Some tackles, I could have been lucky but I wouldn’t call it luck. I believe in God and he’s taking care of me.
“I’ve just been staying fit and hopefully I can continue doing my best for Arsenal on the pitch so we can have some happiness at the end of the season now.”
As is typical of Arteta, he instructed Saka to concentrate on what he can control. The Spaniard believes Arsenal should be able to modify their use of the ball to reduce the risk of Saka being unfairly challenged.
“I think he’s talking about the type of balls I receive,” Saka explained. “For example, as a winger if you receive the ball on the touchline with my back to the defender, even if I’m the defender, I’d do the same: come in straight and fast, close you down.
“So of course there’s going to be a lot of pressure and a lot of contact. I think he’s talking about those type of balls, the type of balls where I don’t have much space to manoeuvre and the defender can close me down quickly and be really aggressive.
“People will know me more now, I’ve played more and more football, more and more at the higher levels as well so they will know more what my game is about. So they will be setting up plans to stop me of course and foul me and stuff like that.
“It is normal for most wingers. The same happens for most of the other wingers in our team when they play. I just have to keep adapting, keep adapting, learn how to play one vs. one, two vs. one, three vs. one, whatever it is. Just keep developing. That’s the beauty of the game. There’s always going to be something different every week. It is about me trying to break it down and ultimately winning the game.”
Saka’s defiance is typical of the singlemindedness which has help elevate him from Arsenal’s Hale End academy to helping spearhead a title charge in just four years.
And a lot is being asked of him. Saka has amassed 2,320 minutes across all 27 league games this season, a figure only surpassed by 11 outfield players in the whole of the league.
Despite an impressive individual tally, Saka insists he has not yet met the set number of goals and assists he aimed for in August — numbers he continues to keep private — but a continuation of his current form would surely render that achievement a matter of time. Eleven Premier League games lie in wait, plus a Europa League round of 16, second-leg clash against Sporting CP on Thursday, the same day as when Saka is a certainty to be named in Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad for games against Italy and Ukraine later this month.
The football never stops. Asked whether he is feeling fresh, Saka adjusts himself in his seat and measures his response.
“I’d say mentally, I’m just happy to be on the pitch,” he said. “If I put it to you this way: would I rather be injured or on the pitch, I want to be on the pitch. If I ask myself when I was younger where I would want to be, and it was on the pitch playing for Arsenal every week competing at the highest level, I’d take it.
“So, I’m happy. I just want to continue to push to the end of the season and then in the summer I can lock myself in my room and sleep for the rest of the summer.”