And so, we’ve reached the point in Bukayo Saka’s development where the ability to levitate would come as little surprise.
Since Saka first burst into Arsenal’s plans, there’s no test he’s not aced. He was defensively resilient in a left-back crisis before finding a home further up the pitch - he now scores or assists every week. He’s four days younger than England’s 5-1 whupping of Germany in 2001 - and yet he plays with older eyes. He moves like he’s choreographed this run, this pass, this shot a thousand times. He’s so sure of his own abilities - yet humble as hell. Everything to envy, nothing to dislike.
He sure is a fascinating juxtaposition of a footballer. A Europa League Robben or an Ealing Ashley Cole depending on the mission. Quick, yet able to make space and time bend to his watch when a ball lands at his feet. Saka looks like he’ll be ID’d at every pub he visits when the world reopens, and yet last night, as seasoned internationals around him withered and wilted, he grabbed his club by the throat and made two assists to his captain. It’s what he does.
The Benfica tie has shown a new quality: he’ll come in clutch when it matters. Have Arsenal ever had an academy talent this good?
Let’s wind back slightly, to when west Londoner Bukayo Saka was an outsider. The bulk of the Hale End academy boys came from the north (Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles) with Saka getting lifts from his dad to training. He was polite, studious at school and a quiet kid, with his father enforcing the importance of respect. He would burn up the ground like the DeLorean in Back to the Future, before sleeping in the car on the way home across the capital.
At the time, a young Bukayo apparently looked up to Jack Wilshere, an equally precocious talent schooled at the same institution. Wilshere was far more extroverted in personality than Saka, yet it's natural to compare the two: similar wide smile, similar majestic left foot, for start.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR What if Gareth Bale and Dele Alli were good, after all?
In 2021, Saka and Wilshere are the two most exciting products to ever come from the Arsenal factory; so alike but so alien from each other in so many other ways. It’s ten years ago since a young Wilshere tied Xavi and Iniesta in knots at the Emirates, and though that night against Barcelona has grown and blossomed in the dreams of fans who witnessed it, what Saka is doing every week is just as impressive. One was an artist who painted a landscape; the other is toiling those fields, carrying a plough upon his back.
Naturally, there are alarm bells when you compare the trajectories. The last time Arsenal produced a player this good, he was played into the ground. Wilshere is 29 now: Pep Guardiola claimed the world would be his by now and instead, he’s just about getting his career back on track, a division below. Bukayo Saka is playing just as much football, perhaps at a higher intensity. What happens if he burns out?
Arsenal strike late to save their season against Benfica!Saka and Aubameyang combine AGAIN when it matters most to put the Gunners ahead! 🤝 pic.twitter.com/e9aazd58lRFebruary 25, 2021
And then there’s the shape of the void, to ponder. What will happen to Arsenal without Saka? God forbid he gets injured, stagnates, hell, even leaves the Emirates altogether. He is invaluable to Mikel Arteta; his beating heart, wherever he fits into the mix. It derails Arsenal’s present and future if the No.7 is missing for any longer than necessary.
Yep, Saka is that kind of breathtaking footballer: the type that leaves Arsenal fans gasping when he goes down under a tackle, just as much as when he’s dictating a game. Perhaps that’s another juxtaposition that Arsenal fans may have to live with. While Arteta’s side are this patchy, Saka can give them life: his absence would surely take it away.
But that's another conversation. For now, he’s just best enjoyed. And for all this boy's contradictions of brilliance, it's his Timelord-like nature that's most fascinating: he's still just a teenager and yet he's so mature. Nineteen, yet so capable of conjuring the unexpected.
Even, if he doesn’t improve anymore, Arsenal still have one hell of a footballer in their corner. It's both an inditement of their squad-building for years and a cautionary tale to look after him wisely.
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