Emery had little interest in checking in with the younger age groups at the London Colney training complex during his time at Arsenal, but he was aware of Ljungberg’s close relationship with several promising players while steering the club’s under-23s side to a second-place finish in the 2018-19 Development League. Ljungberg discussed the merits of an exciting group, but singled out Saka and Joe Willock, both of whom were subsequently brought into the first-team setup. And while Willock’s progress has levelled off a little this term, Saka’s inexorable rise continued this month with his senior England debut against Wales.
Last Thursday, he was named on a 20-player shortlist for this year’s Golden Boy award run by Tuttosport; three days later, he was one of Arsenal’s brightest performers in a narrow 1-0 defeat to Manchester City. The 19-year-old’s development has been unchecked during a turbulent period for Arsenal in which Emery departed, Ljungberg took temporary charge and subsequently left the club altogether as Arteta stamped his authority on a squad accused of lacking sufficient commitment and quality.
These are hardly the optimum conditions for young players to blossom, but those closest to Saka are not surprised he has in some respects defeated the odds.
“Freddie saw what a lot of us did in Bukayo: that rare mixture of talent and temperament,” one former Arsenal staff member told ESPN. “There are never any guarantees in youth development, but he seemed to have everything in place from a very young age.”
Those who knew him best back then did not disagree.
Saka is still in contact with many of the friends and staff of Greenford High School in Ealing, where he attended from the age of 11. Nobody has a bad word to say about the teenager who divided his time between completing his GCSEs — his results included four A*s and three As — and increasing his spells at the Arsenal academy.
“Bukayo was a great kid and a natural talent in so many areas,” his former PE teacher Mark Harvey told ESPN. “I’m a basketball coach and for years I tried to get him to focus on that sport. Needless to say, football — and specifically Arsenal — won!
“I remember a few years ago, Bukayo was in tears after the school team lost a cup final. He was so distraught he almost couldn’t face playing football again, but that soon passed; he was a role model for taking things in his stride, always being sportsmanlike.”
Saka is still in touch with many of his contemporaries and several teachers, even making time to attend a gathering to celebrate the previous headmaster’s retirement last year.
“It wasn’t just a token effort either,” Harvey said. “He stayed for a long time, chatting to people, the same Bukayo we’ve always known.”
Staff at London Colney offer a similar assessment. It does not sound like much, but in this age of prematurely celebrated footballers, Saka makes a point of learning the full names of those working around the club. On more than one occasion, staff who have performed small errands on his behalf — whether collecting his mail or facilitating a personal request — Saka has made a point of seeking out the person responsible to thank them personally.
His parents and brother Yomi are influential figures, dating back in football terms to garden kick-abouts aged just three. Before his full senior debut against Qarabag in December 2018, his parents made a point of sending him to bed early to ensure he was completely ready to give his all.
After scoring his first senior goal against Eintracht Frankfurt in September 2019, Saka spoke to a few assembled journalists afterwards with the same composure he had shown in the preceding 90 minutes, revealing to us the ongoing influence Ljungberg was having in resolving communication issues arising from Emery’s fractured English.
Ljungberg’s subsequent departure in August was a loss keenly felt by the youngsters who had come through the Hale End academy but Saka had by this point rejected interest from Bayern Munich and several other leading clubs to sign a new four-year contract after becoming a firm fixture in Arteta’s first-team squad.
On the pitch, there is a little uncertainty about precisely where he fits in for club and country and to that point, England boss Gareth Southgate offered some interesting insight during the October international break.
“He is an exciting player, we know he can play four or five different positions already,” Southgate said. “He’s done that for Arsenal — wide-left, wide-right, wing-back, left-back. I think out and out left-back at this level would be a little bit more difficult, but any of those advanced positions he is more than capable.”
Saka’s England debut against Wales came as a left wing-back, continuing a path that began when Ljungberg sought to solve a defensive crisis by switching him to left-back with Arsenal losing at Standard Liege last December. After Saka assisted one goal and scored the other to salvage a 2-2 draw from 2-0 down, Ljungberg said: “I think he was a bit upset with me that he had to play wing-back and full-back because he doesn’t like it so much.”
It has not stopped him being effective, such is the maturity in his decision-making and ability to find space. Saka’s 12 assists last season were more than any other Arsenal player. In fact, only Kevin De Bruyne, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez boasted better numbers in England.
Against Sheffield United in Arsenal’s final game before the international break, Arteta switched to 4-3-3 with Saka — who scored in the 2-1 victory — in a slightly more central midfield role and then pushed him wide left when altering to 4-2-3-1 later on. Saka got another chance in midfield in Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Manchester City, too, operating on the left side of a trio with Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos. However, both Arsenal and England have primarily adopted a 3-4-3 system of late and with both club and country boasting a plethora of attacking options, Saka may have to be content with developing his understanding of that less attractive role.
Willian has started well on the right following his summer move from Chelsea and club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is now one of the Premier League’s most dynamic goal scorers coming off the left flank. With Nicolas Pepe itching to justify his £72 million price tag, Saka will likely have to wait for an extended run in an attacking position.
Ljungberg is said to have sent Saka a message of support upon leaving the club, but there are plenty of others around Arsenal now more than ready to champion his cause.