Bukayo Saka was in England’s last squad and could go to the European Championship this summer
When Bukayo Saka takes to the field on Thursday – if fitness allows – and tries to play his role in steering Arsenal past Slavia Prague into the Europa League semi-finals, he will not be lacking in support.
In the corridors of Greenford High School in Ealing, Saka’s legacy plays a big role. On the wall in the reception area is a signed Arsenal jersey and a thank you letter from the 19-year-old whose status as one of the best prospects in English football ensures he continues to dominate conversations for teachers and students alike.
“Everyone was thrilled when he made the English squad,” Mark Harvey, Saka’s former physical education teacher and assistant manager at Greenford, told BBC Sport.
“The older students study his career and when he does something like scores or scores it is always sent to the staff WhatsApp group,” adds Dipesh Patel, Saka’s school football coach. “The younger children can’t quite believe that he was a student here.”
Saka (fourth from left) with Greenford High School staff including PE teacher Mark Harvey (fourth from right)
Arsenal was the first for Saka, ahead of secondary school and the exams he usually took despite an immensely disrupted schedule, getting four A * s and three A’s at GCSE before leaving in the summer of 2018. He stood out early on and helps Greenford achieve regional and regional success.
“I was in school for a few years, but immediately I saw something in him that I had never seen before,” continues Patel. “The way he moved, the way he saw the game and always seemed to be doing the right thing. He was just an amazing team player.
“In year 7 we lost the Ealing Borough Trophy final 4-3 and he missed a lot of opportunities. It was very unlike him. I remember him coming off and he felt it was all his fault He said to me, “I’ll never play soccer again!” But he raised the standard of everyone around him.
“We got to the final pretty easily and he was intrigued in most of the games. Sometimes I would take him off at halftime to be a little nicer for the other team. When he got into eighth grade, we did it.” won pretty much everything, the Ealing Borough Trophy and the Middlesex Cup that was the county. It was never about him; the team just had a nice spirit. “
The winger, who has been with the Gunners since he was seven, made his first team debut in a Europa League tie in November 2018 and made his first appearance in the Premier League in January.
He won the FA Cup last August and should be rewarded with a new contract at the Emirates Stadium. Two months later, after going through the under 16 age brackets, he made his full international debut in a win over Wales.
Although Saka has established himself as a regular in North London and forced his way into Gareth Southgate’s thoughts for the rescheduled European Championship this summer, he has never forgotten his roots.
“He had a really good relationship with his headmaster and a really good relationship with his headmaster who was a Chelsea fan, so you can imagine the jokes between them early on,” continues Harvey.
“He also had a close circle of friends, about five to eight boys. Everyone was really nice and they were not only athletic but also academic.”
When Saka’s former headmaster retired two years ago, he made sure he showed his respect at his farewell party.
“He came down with his father and stayed a few hours to speak to staff,” said Harvey. “Everyone knows him; from our receptionist to our security guard. He had a relationship with you.”
“If he does things instinctively, they just happen.”
The only thing that caught Saka most of all from a young age was his desire to succeed. His ability to beat a man and his versatility were also critical to his development at both Arsenal and England.
“He was a very calm boy, incredibly respectful, a great listener who was desperate to be satisfied and wanted to do his best,” said Neil Dewsnip, former England U18 coach.
“We played him as a left-back in a very offensive 4-3-3 form, on the same team as Mason Greenwood. Bukayo could play as an attacking winger and even move to the right, like him.” was very versatile.
“His ability to run past people with or without the ball was excellent, as was his one-on-one dribbling and he scored a few goals.”
“He’s great on both legs so he can step outside or cut inside,” says Martin Taylor, a former Arsenal scout who watched Saka while he was with the under 16s.
“He had the right qualities and a great desire to beat a player and score and score goals. When he does things instinctively, they just happen.”
“He had the ability to see the field when he was 7 and 8 and you can’t teach that,” says Harvey.
“He would just play that easy too. He could play in so many different positions from the start. I would watch games and he would be all over the field.”
“One day he will be the Arsenal captain.”
Personality and strength of character have become decisive factors in the composition of young English footballers. According to Dewsnip, they are key elements in their development process today.
“Education is an important part of it,” says Dewsnip. “Young players take part in workshops on social issues. When you hear Bukayo and others speak, they do so with intelligence, insight, and maturity.”
“We pride ourselves on recognizing students’ character development and academic careers,” adds Harvey.
“We made that easy and worked with his family and Arsenal from the moment he was with us. I went back to check his behavior record and there was nothing, he was Mr. Squeaky Clean!
“He’s always been so humble. When you are so good at something and you play against others who are not on the same level, it is important to remain a good athlete. One day he will be the Arsenal captain.”
Taylor says Saka’s mentality drove him to the extreme: “He plays with the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, players who are much older than him. But he still has his own personality and character that sets him bring to.” whatever he wants.
“His first thought is to look ahead – a lot of players don’t have that. A confident player like Bukayo will attack anyone. That’s mentality. You are either born with game intelligence or not.” It cannot be trained. You have to have good intelligence and self-awareness to play at a good level. “
“There is still a long way to go”
In one of his best performances of the season, Saka scored one goal and another in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Southampton in January
Saka has cemented himself as the key tooth in Arsenal’s machine, forming the youngest roster in England, just because of a minor injury that disrupts his progress. He continues to impress. But Dewsnip urges caution with regard to the youth’s future.
“He’s still in the breakthrough phase. He’s got off to a really good start in his football career, but there is still a long way to go,” he said.
“For a coach there is nothing better than working with a player who breaks down at national level. Expectations also have to be met.
“After talking to Gareth and other national coaches in this environment, we always said that 50 games are the benchmark for a real English player.
“I have no doubt that Gareth is brave enough to use young players. The evidence shows it, but then it has to be good enough. Bukayo took this opportunity but he is still very young and I have no doubt that he will it is.” it gets better.”
Arsenal’s support in the Europa League semi-finals would be further evidence of his growing role for his club – and Southgate will be watching with interest.