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Bukayo Saka: Arsenal's teen wing wizard on track for superstar status

7:00 PM GMT+8 17/10/2019
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The 18-year-old has become a regular for Unai Emery this season after a series of impressive performances at the Emirates Stadium

It was moments after the final whistle at the Commerzbank-Arena and Bukayo Saka had rushed back to the dressing room to find his phone.

The teenager had just scored his first Arsenal goal and set up another two in a 3-0 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League.

Journalists were gathered outside waiting to talk to the winger after his man of the match-winning display, while members of the coaching staff were hurriedly trying to get him warmed down ahead of the flight back to London.

Time was at a premium but Saka knew there was someone he had to call.

“I gave my dad a quick FaceTime,” he said. “I couldn't speak because the coaches wanted me to get in the ice bath, so we just put our thumbs up to each other and I saw him smiling. It was a proud moment.”

Saka’s parents have been a key part in the youngster’s rapid rise to prominence at Arsenal.

The winger, who has just turned 18, has been tipped for stardom in north London from the moment he first walked through the door as a seven-year-old after he was spotted playing for local side Greenford Celtic.

Even at that tender age, he had a queue of clubs trying to snap him up. But there was only ever once place he wanted to go.

“I had invitations from Spurs, Chelsea, Fulham and Watford but the only choice was Arsenal,” said Saka. “I enjoyed the way Arsenal played so the choice was easy for me.”

With so much interest in him at such at an early age, it could have been easy for the young attacker to lose his way.

But with his parents doing everything they could to keep his upbringing as normal as possible and Arsenal protecting him from the spotlight that can come from being billed as a potential superstar, Saka’s focus never wavered.

He earned A grades across the board during his GCSEs, four of which were A*s, and that was all done while playing in age groups well above his own during his progression through Arsenal’s academy at Hale End.

“He’s very, very bright,” said academy manager Per Mertesacker. “An interesting talent, but very young and we don't want to push him too hard.

"The manager likes him, but he's got a lot of steps to do before he can call himself a real professional in a first-team environment."

Saka’s motivation to succeed has always seen him stand out at Arsenal. He possesses a drive and focus that few others can replicate.

Freddie Ljungberg first spotted it three years ago when he was Under-15s coach and then, when the Swede returned to the club to take charge of the U23s following a spell with Wolfsburg in Germany last summer, he immediately set out to build on that potential.

“Bukayo is a great talent,” enthused Ljungberg. “He takes it all in his stride and he’s just going to get better and better. It has been amazing to see the development he’s made and the improvement in his decision-making.”

Having quickly become a key player for Ljungberg with the U23s, Saka started to catch the eye of Unai Emery, who handed him a first-team debut against FC Vorskla in the Europa League in November, 2018.

Now, less than 12 months on, Saka has become a regular under the Spaniard, starting Arsenal’s last three Premier League games.

“Bukayo is working and improving,” said Emery. “He’s being mature and his work is natural. He is helping us now as an important player.

"We are going to work with him, be calm and have patience, but if he deserves to play minutes, that is fantastic for us."

Saka’s progress is testament to the work being done at Hale End, but also to his own determination to succeed and improve. And given how hard he has worked to reach such a level at an early age, it is perhaps no surprise to find out the player he has tried to model himself on.

“Cristiano Ronaldo, I love his mentality," he admitted. "He always wants to be the best and is always working hard on and off the pitch and trying to make his body the best.

"I try to look at him and take the good things from his game. He’s always focused, always working and I try to do that as well.”

The early signs are that Saka is learning all the right things from following the Portuguese great.

It already seems that Arsenal have a potential homegrown superstar on their hands.