‘Next Generation’ is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s.

 

Bukayo Saka’s emergence at Arsenal had been greeted with a certain amount of trepidation in recent months.

There was no doubting his ability – the young left-winger had impressed with his dribbling, direct style of play and deliveries from the flank.

If anything it was his quality that had some worried, as his contract was due to expire in 2021. Arsenal being Arsenal, many were perhaps justifiably concerned the situation would ultimately lead to Saka’s departure.

But on Wednesday the Gunners confirmed the 18-year-old – who made his Premier League debut when he was 17 – had signed a new long-term contract.

Following last-week’s quadruple-whammy of underwhelming contract news relating to David Luiz, Pablo Mari, Dani Ceballos and Cedric Soares, this was a somewhat rare moment of unanimous positivity among Arsenal supporters.

And he’s one of their own.

“The dream student”

Having spent much of his childhood in Arsenal’s Hale End academy, there was always something special about Saka – not that he’d laud it over anyone. Talented but humble, confident yet reserved.

“I was lucky enough to see him from Year 7 all the way through, and I’m an Arsenal fan so it’s even better,” Saka’s former Greenford High School PE teacher Mark Harvey explains to Stats Perform News. “He was a role model student, never any behavioural issues or anything like that, unbelievably polite, respectful and a leader among his friends but he very quietly went about it, he wasn’t loud or anything like that, quite reserved. He was a dream student, to be honest.”

Being identified as a particularly special footballer can, unsurprisingly, have its benefits from a social perspective at school. Popularity can lead to arrogance, which in turn might result in carelessness or complacency.

But Saka managed to prevent such traits from taking root, and the cockiness many might have expected of him simply wasn’t there.

“He always had a silent strength to him and that was evident on the pitch and reflected in his personality around the school,” Harvey continued. “He made everything look simple from a very young age. As a teacher or coach, it’s what you want, and most young kids want the ball at their feet and to try every trick under the sun, and especially nowadays. But he never took the mick out of anyone – he was respectful on and off the pitch.”

“The moment we realised…”

Much of Saka’s later years at school forced him to juggle educational and football commitments. One week he would be attending as normal, the next he would be in Brazil or Spain in action for Arsenal.

Despite the upheaval, he still managed to excel in both respects, but from a sporting perspective Harvey recalls one specific moment the teenager’s talents really dawned on him.

“The moment we realised he was special was during a Year 9 game,” he remembered. “I wasn’t the football coach at the time, it was another PE teacher, but he asked Bukayo to basically just use his weaker foot for the whole game, so he was using his right foot the whole game and you could still see from a distance that this kid was miles better than anyone else on the playing field.

“And not because he was a show-off – he was never a showboater, that’s the one thing I always try to get across to people. He never showed off. Bukayo wasn’t like that.”

But did he always look destined to be an Arsenal regular by the time he was 18? Not quite.

“There were a couple of games we went to where he was playing, before he got anywhere near the standard he’s at now, but was obviously playing for Arsenal, and I don’t think he ever stood out then,” Harvey adds.

“I think I’ve seen huge progress in his game in the last 18 months. I don’t know what it is, but I played to quite a high standard in basketball and you’d always talk about person’s peripheral vision, how they see the court, and I imagine that’s very similar for a footballer. Because of what’s happened at Arsenal he’s had to play so many different positions, and that’s allowed him to see the pitch as a bigger picture, so now he can see it from different angles. I think he just reads the game better.”

A key provider

As you walk into Greenford High’s main reception, a reminder of Saka’s association with the school is immediately obvious – a signed Arsenal shirt and photo of the 18-year-old takes pride of place on the school’s ‘celebration board’.

With his current trajectory, the school’s pride will only increase – after all, statistics prove he’s already a key player for the Gunners, with his 33 appearances just three shy of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this season.

While he wasn’t required in Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Norwich, he remains Arsenal’s third-most productive player in all competitions this term with three goals and 11 assists.

Indeed, he’s the first teenager to surpass 10 assists in a single season for Arsenal since Cesc Fabregas in 2006-07.

Mason Greenwood (16) is the only current teenager to have had a hand in more goals across all competitions this term – though he’s not had to play at left-back for much of the campaign.

Senior honours for England are surely just around the corner for Saka, with Trent Alexander-Arnold (14) the only Englishman in the Premier League to have registered more assists than him.

The decision-makers at Arsenal in recent years have rarely attracted praise – but they’ve at least avoided another major farce by securing Saka’s future.

Everything suggests the talented winger will have his own ‘celebration board’ at Greenford High before long.