What are Bukayo Saka’s greatest strengths? Most observers would probably point towards his skill on the ball, or his decisiveness in the final third. Some might say it is his workrate, or his tactical understanding of Mikel Arteta’s system.
There is another quality, though, that is far less glamorous but no less important: availability. When Arsenal play, Saka plays. He is always there, always ready and seemingly always prepared to make a difference for his team.
For a 22-year-old winger, whose game is built on explosive pace and rapid changes of direction, Saka’s durability is nothing short of extraordinary. It is also record-breaking: this weekend’s north London derby will mark his 86th consecutive league appearance – the longest run of consecutive matches of any Arsenal player in Premier League history.
Saka’s run of games is, by some distance, the longest current ongoing streak in the entire division. Second on the list is Brentford’s Yoane Wissa, who is way back on 69 consecutive appearances. In other words, no current Premier League player even comes close to matching the physical resilience that Saka has shown in recent seasons.
Such robustness would be impressive for any player in any position, let alone a winger who is so regularly targeted by his opponents. Saka’s legs are often battered and bruised as a result of his treatment by opposition full-backs, many of whom attempt to kick him out of the action. Since the start of last season, he has been fouled 76 times, the most of any Arsenal player and the sixth-most in the entire division.
There is no single secret to Saka’s indestructibility. Within Arsenal they instead view it as a combination of a few key factors, including his professionalism, his genetic advantages and his education. Saka himself, meanwhile, is understood to swear by the nutritional value of his mother’s Nigerian home cooking.
Saka, to be clear, is not superhuman. Over the course of the season, he picks up knocks and pains like any other player. The difference between him and most other footballers is his attitude towards addressing those issues. Telegraph Sport understands that if Saka feels a niggle after a game, he will then make it his mission in the subsequent days to fix it. Between matches, he treats his fitness as the absolute priority.
It helps that Saka has a gym at home, and that he knows how to use it properly. First he listens to the club’s strength and conditioning staff, and then he goes away and does what they recommend. It might sound simple but, within the club, this is regarded as a mental skill which helps Saka to stand out from his contemporaries.
Saka was a famously studious schoolboy and, having officially signed for Arsenal’s academy at the age of eight, he has spent the majority of his life surrounded by experts in nutrition and conditioning. He has learnt from them and, equally, Arsenal have learnt from him. After all, the club’s medical department has 14 years worth of physical data on him. They know what he needs, and when he needs it.
“We listen to him when he tells us about an issue,” Gary O’Driscoll, the club’s recently departed head of medical services, told the club’s website earlier this year. “If he ever comes to us with a minor complaint, we know he means it, so we listen to him because he is one of the most honest people you can find.
“It is a remarkable story. You sit there and look for a problem but, even as a kid, his story was impeccable in that regard. He has never had to come into my office once to review a significant scan.”
Further evidence of Saka’s professionalism was provided by Ray Parlour, the former Arsenal midfielder, in a recent appearance on TalkSport. “I went to the training ground not so long ago,” Parlour said earlier this month. “Every single player had a day off, but he [Saka] was in, doing a warm-down on the bike. He did not have to be there.”
Lifestyle choices make a difference, too. Saka is no hermit – last season, he bumped into Arteta at a high-end restaurant in Mayfair – but he will not be spotted tumbling out of nightclubs in the early hours of the morning. That world, and all of the distractions that come with it, is simply not for him.
There have been times, in the past year or so, when Arteta has faced calls to give Saka a rest. Within the Arsenal fanbase, especially, there are fears of burnout. But Arteta has always stood firm. Instead of benching Saka, he has challenged him to keep going, to keep playing and to keep leading the team forward, as he did with a goal and assist against PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday night.
In training, Arsenal’s coaches work with Saka on the timing of his runs and his body shape when receiving possession, in order to better protect him from opposition defenders. They can never totally prevent him from being kicked, but they have worked hard to at least lower the risk of it.
“Look at the top players in the world,” Arteta said last season. “They play 70 matches, playing every three days and making the difference. If you want to be at the top you have to be able to do that. If we start to put something different in the minds of our young players, I think we are making a huge difference. I want them to be ruthless, every three days.”
Serious injuries are often the result of freak accidents, of course. And there are no guarantees that Saka’s body will remain as durable as it has been in recent years. But this is a young player who seems to make the right decisions at the right time, every time, and an ultra-professional footballer who clearly possesses the determination and “ruthlessness” that his manager demands. Arsenal keep on progressing, and Saka keeps on playing.