No more Mr Nice Guy: Bukayo Saka shows steely side in Arsenal title bid
Bukayo Saka caught many people by surprise at Villa Park on Saturday. Not with the way the winger smashed home his 10th goal of the season to help Arsenal win 4-2 and go back top of the Premier League, but the manner in which he reacted to Villa midfielder Philippe Coutinho upending him with a late tackle from behind.
Saka leapt to his feet and pushed the Brazilian and Douglas Luiz as players from both sides charged in to break them up. The Arsenal player was booked, but he had sent a message: enough was enough, and he was not going to tolerate any more rough treatment.
Loved at both Arsenal and England for being one of the most kind and mild-mannered players, Saka showed on Saturday an edge to his game. Those closest to him insist that side has always been there, and now his importance at Arsenal has grown, it is manifesting itself on the pitch.
Saka has become Arsenal’s talisman this season and it is why they are desperate to tie him down to a new contract. The 21-year-old’s deal expires at the end of next season and talks are ongoing. Arsenal remain optimistic an agreement can be found.
There is a belief at Arsenal that Saka can develop into one of the best players in the world and he is viewed as a vital part of the club’s future. His game has developed this season, and adding an edge is part of that. The best players in the world have some bite and an ability to stand up for themselves when they are being targeted by opposition teams.
Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, who Saka paid homage to with his celebration at Villa Park, certainly had that. Now the Frenchman wants Saka to show it, too. “Big players are not nice,” Henry said last week. “If you wanna be big, if you wanna be the guy, big players are not nice.”
Saka is one of the most popular players at Arsenal’s training ground. He is especially loved by the staff and last Christmas dressed up as Santa before giving out presents.
He broke into the first team in 2018 as a shy teenager, but there is a feeling he is finding his voice. During last summer’s pre-season tour of the USA, Arsenal held a team barbecue. Mikel Arteta was sat with the leadership group in the squad discussing their early-season schedule and Saka was invited to join them. The academy graduate is not part of the leadership group, but he is a growing influence in the dressing room. He is emotionally intelligent and gets on well with the entire squad. His obsessive attention to detail endears him Arteta and his coaching staff.
Arteta has had a big impact on Saka, demanding more from him both publicly and privately. “Look at the top players in the world, they play 70 matches, every three days, and make the difference and win the game,” said Arteta this season. “You want to be at the top, you have to be able to do that. I want them to be ruthless every three days.”
The reasoning behind the tough love is because Saka loves challenges being set and then achieving them. After he missed the decisive penalty for England in the Euro 2020 Final, he responded by becoming Arsenal’s spot-kick taker. Last week, he scored from 12 yards against Manchester City in what was his most pressurised penalty since his heartbreak with England.
Those closest to Saka are not shocked by the way he has bounced back from that disappointment. But there is surprise at the way he recovers each week after a kicking from opposition defenders. Saka is often sore after games, but he always recovers for the next match. Saka jokes his powers of recovery are down to the strength Nigerian food gives him.
Those around him, however, put it down to his mentality. He can take the hits and play through the pain barrier. On Saturday, Saka showed he will not lie down in the face of rough-house treatment. Team-mates have already stood up for him, both on the pitch and off it, and now he is doing the same.
Despite everything he has been through, Saka has weighed in with nine goals and eight assists in the Premier League this season. Only Erling Haaland and Harry Kane have been more productive.
Now the challenge for Saka is to maintain his brilliant form as Arsenal try to win a first title since 2004. He loves challenges, and it is a case of ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’ in his bid to achieve it.