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Just Watch: Bukayo Saka

The teenage Arsenal winger is deceptively disarming, but his ability to anticipate and feed the movements of his teammates strikes a deadly blow on opponents
Fri, Jan 29, 2021

Bukayo Saka is deceptive. Not in the sense of deviancy – the Arsenal winger is as honest as the day is long. It's just that he doesn't look remotely as dangerous as he is.

Saka has a sweet, friendly face. Big, rounded cheekbones, big smile – and no physical clues to a hard psychological edge. He looks like a graphic design student at a London bus stop who plays a bit of five-a-side and does a bit of bartending for beer money.

Whereas in fact he is a serial killer – in football terms. Saka owns a murderously complete toolkit for the mysterious craft of unlocking defences. Few other teenage players can think as incisively on their feet. For someone born as recently as early September 2001, Saka is an unusually old soul in the final third. ("So, what were you doing on 9/11?" … "Breastfeeding.")

Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy discovered this hidden edge of measured brutality in December, when Arsenal crushed the Blues 3-0 to trigger their recent run of form. Late on, with the score line at 2-0, Saka darted onto an Emile Smith-Rowe square pass on the edge of the box, took one touch and then scooped a finely calibrated chip over Mendy. The ball dropped inside the far top corner like a coin into a slot.

"I thought I'd just chip him," said Saka in the post-match interview, an impish twinkle in his eye. Even so, some commentators refused to accept the intentionality, dismissing the strike as just a fortuitously bungled cross, even though Saka had had no teammate in the box to aim at. One month and four more brainy Saka goals later, it's increasingly inescapable that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Even more impressive than Saka's goal streak has been his knack for anticipating and feeding the movements of his teammates, especially since moving to the right flank in recent weeks. Saka's attacking rapport with Smith-Rowe and Alexandre Lacazette is deepening with every game. They share a commitment to one-touch, give-and-go interplay – an intuitive and improvisatory mode of attack that was glaringly absent during Arsenal's nightmarish first half of the campaign.

Saka's brilliance lies in the balance and intelligence of his game. He's quick but doesn't possess extreme pace, and he's not tall or unusually powerful. He's skilful on the ball but doesn't rely on ostentatious footwork to beat his man. Instead, he consistently does the right, simple thing: he moves into the right spaces, retreats at the right time, delivers the best early pass. He's defensively savvy enough to do a job at fullback as part of a back four.

It's hard to see a flaw. And he will still be only 19 for the next 8 months. No wonder the Nigerian FA tried and failed to call him up for the Super Eagles, as his parents are immigrants from Nigeria. Gareth Southgate swiftly put a stop to that idea by calling him up for England.

Various reports on the web assert that the name Bukayo means "adds to happiness" in the Yoruba tongue. Google Translate, however, claims that Bukayo means "book" in Yoruba. Either way, Bukayo Saka is living up to his name. For Arsenal fans, he is writing the book of added happiness.

  • Arsenal v. Manchester United on 30 January, on SuperSport 3, at 7.30pm

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