Bukayo Saka interview: Arsenal wonderkid insists he is not carrying Arsenal

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Simon Collings
·4-min read
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 (Pool via REUTERS)
(Pool via REUTERS)

He may protest otherwise, but at times this season it has felt like Bukayo Saka has been carrying Arsenal's attack.

During what has been a disappointing campaign for his side, Saka has been a shining light — and being named Young Player of the Year at the London Football Awards on Tuesday night is recognition of that.

The 19-year-old has continually stepped up to the plate for Arsenal and will be expected to do so again tonight, when the Gunners take on Villarreal in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final in Spain. But Saka is not about to fold under the weight of expectation.

"I don't feel pressure from external voices," says Saka. "I've always wanted to have the courage to play, to be the one that's visible when everyone's heads are down.

"I don't think that I'm the player that's carrying Arsenal. In football, it is 11 men. I don't think that I can do anything just by myself. It's a team sport."

Saka has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past year. As well as becoming a star in the Premier League, he also has four England caps and is a strong contender to be named in Gareth Southgate's squad for this summer's Euros.

The versatile winger admits that representing his country at the finals would be "an honour". It would round off a whirlwind period that started last July, when Saka ended speculation about his future by signing a new long-term contract at Arsenal.

He had been about to enter the final year of his deal and, unsurprisingly, clubs from around Europe were watching intently to see what he would do. But his heart was always set on staying at Arsenal, where he has been since he was seven.

"For me, it was just to think about what was best for my career and I felt what was best for my career was to continue playing with Arsenal," says Saka.

Before he was starring in the first team under Unai Emery and then Mikel Arteta, Saka was in the Arsenal academy and he highlights Freddie Ljungberg as a key influence during his time there.

The Swede, who coached Arsenal's Under-23s and was interim manager before Arteta was given the job, helped mould Saka into the man he is today and the pair have stayed in touch since Ljungberg left the club last summer. "Freddie texts me sometimes, just to encourage me," Saka says. "If I have a good game, he'll say, 'Congratulations Bukayo, well done'.

"We still keep in touch because I had a really good relationship with Freddie. Just because he's no longer part of the football club, it doesn't mean that the relationship should die."

Saka also holds Emery, who will be in the opposition dugout tonight, in high regard. The Spaniard gave Saka his first-team debut in 2018 and the teenager has not forgotten that.

"For me, Unai deserves a lot of credit for the belief and trust he put in a lot of us," says Saka. "He is a good guy and a good manager.

"It is going to be a special match, not just for me, but for a lot of the other young players in our team, as Unai gave us our opportunity to play for Arsenal, gave us our debuts."

Another youngster who was given his debut by Emery is Emile Smith Rowe, who since Christmas has cemented a first-team spot.

Like Saka, he is a product of Arsenal's Hale End academy and the pair are revelling being at the forefront of Arteta's plans for the future.

"He encourages me, I encourage him and when we see each other do well, it makes us both smile," says Saka.

"On the pitch as well, we are always looking for each other to try and help each other, encourage each other when things are going bad, so it is good to have a mate like that in the changing room.

"Also, there is an understanding you have with each other, especially on the pitch, so I think it is good to have someone like that.

"I hope it gives a lot of the academy boys at Hale End right now inspiration because, when I was their age, if I saw this amount of boys in the first team it would give me so much passion and inspiration and courage to say to myself that I can make the team.

"A lot of us are making it and there is still a lot to come."

One senses there is a lot more to come from Saka, who is targeting a dream end to the season by winning the Europa League.

"It would mean everything, to me, to the fans, to the club and of course it would mean a return back to the Champions League next season," he says. It's every kid's dream to play in the Champions League and play in the biggest matches of your career."

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