Bukayo Saka exclusive: I get kicked a lot but will never complain - I just want to improve for Arsenal
Bukayo Saka knows that being targeted by opponents means he must be doing something right — but the Arsenal and England forward would rather receive recognition of a different type.
"It can mean [you're a top player], but at the same time, I'd prefer other compliments!" said Saka.
These are not in short supply for the winger, who was last night named Young Player of the Year at the London Football Awards, but the issue of his treatment by opponents and officials remains a talking point.
It came to a head in Arsenal's comeback win over Aston Villa last month, when the young England star — usually so level-headed — finally lost his cool by shoving Philippe Coutinho and then Douglas Luiz.
Saka had been on the receiving end of heavy tackles from the Brazilian pair during another game in which he had appeared to be specifically targeted by the opposition with a number of full-throttle challenges, of varying degrees of legality.
Afterwards, team-mate Oleksandr Zinchenko called for greater protection for Saka from referees, comparing the way he has been targeted to Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, while Gunners boss Mikel Arteta acknowledged that the 21-year-old is increasingly being singled out during Arsenal's push for a first League title since 2004.
Saka admits that he is becoming more of a target as his influence continues to grow for club and country, but says he will have to learn to live with the rough treatment meted out to him.
"People know me more now, I've played more and more football, more and more at the higher levels as well, so they will know more what my game is about," Saka told Standard Sport, after collecting his award at Roundhouse in Camden last night.
"So they will be setting up plans to stop me, of course, and foul me and stuff like that. It is normal for most wingers. The same happens for most of the other wingers in our team when they play. I just have to keep adapting, learn how to play one-versus-one, two-versus-one, three-versus-one, whatever it is.
"Just keep developing. That's the beauty of the game. There's always going to be something different every week. It is about me trying to break it down and, ultimately, winning the game."
The statistics, though, do suggest Saka's treatment may have been on the harsh side. He has been fouled 45 times in the Premier League this season, putting him in the top eight most-targeted players in the division, but he has drawn just four yellow cards (fewer than one card for every 10 fouls).
By way of comparison, the Premier League's other most-fouled players, including the top two Wilfried Zaha and Jack Grealish, have drawn considerable more cards per foul (one every 6.3 fouls and a card every 4.9 fouls, respectively, as of late last month).
Saka says it is pointless to complain about his treatment by officials, but suggested Arsenal have made representations to the PGMOL on his behalf during their regular dialogue with the referees' body.
"I can't come out here and start complaining that I'm getting fouled," he said. "It doesn't make sense, I'm not going to get anywhere with it.
"Arsenal have had the meetings they need to have with the referees and stuff like that. I feel like we just need to take it from there and see where that gets us. The way I play, I'm always going to attract contact. I watched Alexis Sanchez a lot growing up," he added. "He was a special player, I loved many things about him. That's one of the qualities he had — he always got up, fought to the end. You could say I took that from him, but at the same time I have my own goals and ambitions. That's also [part of] my drive."
Beyond advocacy to PGMOL, a potential solution to protecting Saka lies within the way Arsenal play, and Arteta has said the team must start giving him the ball in different areas of the pitch.
Saka explained that his boss wants him to receive possession in less-congested areas, allowing him to quickly escape the attentions of defenders.
"He's talking about the type of balls I receive," Saka said. "As a winger, if you receive the ball on the touchline with your back to the defender, even if I'm the defender, I'd do the same: come in straight and fast, close you down. So, of course, there's going to be a lot of pressure and a lot of contact. I think he's talking about those type of balls, the type of balls where I don't have much space to manoeuvre and the defender can close me down quickly and be really aggressive."
Saka's treatment has not deterred him, however, and he has started all but one of Arsenal's fixtures this term, and is on course for his best League campaign. He has already scored 10 goals and registered nine assists, although revealed he is yet to hit the targets he set himself at the start of the season.
"I'm not going to say [if I'm close] but no, I haven't hit them yet," he said. "In football and in life, I've matured a lot.
"I'd say definitely in my game I'm a much better player than when I made my debut. I'm a much smarter player as well. I'm stronger and I feel like there's a lot I've had to deal with, different pressure situations and it has made me more mature and to understand how to deal with it again. I don't put words to myself. I just see myself as constantly trying to develop.
"No matter the age, I still want to improve and I still have a lot to improve. I just want to constantly keep getting better and keep delivering top performances every week. That's the standard I set myself."