Saka ready to take the next step

Saka ready to take the next step

Our winger on his growth as a player, the evolution of our squad and the joy of battling for the biggest prizes

When asked what three words he would use to describe Arsenal, Bukayo replies with barely a pause: “Family, hunger and quality,” he states.

And Bukayo should know the club. He’s been here ever since signing as an eight-year-old in 2010, and has grown to be one of the most important and influential figures since then, winning back-to-back Player of the Year awards for us in 2021 and 2022.

His development has run in tandem with that of the team, and the upward trajectory Bukayo has been on since making his debut away to Vorskla Poltava back in 2018 shows no sign of slowing down. Now he is desperate to finally follow up the FA Cup success of 2020 by getting his hands on more silverware, sensing a huge opportunity to do just that this season, with only three games remaining.

The winger believes a variety of factors will be crucial if we are to achieve that – either this year or in future – and includes the importance of togetherness high up on that list.

The squad has steadily evolved and grown over the past few years – just like Bukayo’s Arsenal career – and he believes we are ready to take the next step.

“I’ve been here at the club for 14 years, and I don’t think I would change anything at all,” the youngster begins. “I’ve enjoyed it all, it’s been so good. Arsenal means everything to me.

“Mikel Arteta has had a vision from when he first came in. On the first day he made that clear to us, and now you can see it’s his team – it’s full of players he has signed, and you can see where we are now. The qualities he values are humility, discipline and fight. Those words sum up what he wants from the team.

“I think what makes us different is we are such a team,” he continues. “We are really together. Off the pitch we are like a family, we have that hunger, we really want to achieve something this year, that’s what’s driving us.”

We may have dropped only five points since the turn of the year, but Bukayo fully acknowledges we are still relying on a slip from Manchester City during the run-in if we are to overhaul last season’s treble winners.

He has been keeping a close eye on our rivals’ progress lately (“yes, I love football, so if there is a game on I will usually watch it”), so how frustrating has it been this season to have put together such an incredible run, yet still not have our destiny in our own hands?

“You can see it in two ways. You can either view it as frustrating or as a beautiful challenge,” he smiles. “Everybody knows they are one of the best teams in the world, they have been on the top for the past five years, challenging for everything, so for ourselves to be up there competing with them is good. We are pushing them the whole way and let’s see what happens.

“But we’re not getting frustrated, we see it as a challenge that we want to fight until the end. They have set a standard and it’s up to the rest of us to try to be better than them. We just focus on ourselves, that’s all we can do.”

"The end of last season has made us stronger AND hungrier to try and go a step further"

We certainly couldn’t have done much more since the start of 2024. Our first league game this calendar year was a 5-0 win over Crystal Palace, and that result triggered a run of form in which we have scored 51 goals in our last 16 league games, conceded just eight and taken 43 points from a possible 48.

So what does Bukayo feel is behind our storming 20024 so far? “I wish I knew the answer!” he laughs. “I’m just happy that we were able to turn it around at the start of the year. The trip to Dubai was really important, for us to reset, get some rest as well and come back to start the new year stronger, and that’s exactly what we did.

“The end of last season has made us stronger this year too, made us hungrier to try and go a step further this year. The squad is a lot stronger too, one hundred per cent. The new signings have had a big impact too. We have been so consistent this year, not conceded many goals, only lost once in the league, so we want to continue that.”

Three summer signings – David Raya, Kai Havertz and Declan Rice – continue to all have a huge impact on the side. Bukayo has been impressed at how quickly each of them has felt at home this season, another example of the family feel around the squad.

“I can speak about them all individually, all day, about how happy I am to play with them,” he says. “They have been great for the team, played a lot of games. Kai and Declan have scored some crucial goals and they have all given their best in every game.

"There was a lot of noise around Kai at the start of the season, people talking about him, so how he has stood up has been so impressive. He’s just been doing his thing, he’s flying now and people aren’t talking anymore! Hopefully there are more goals to come now.”

Another factor behind the team’s improvement over the past couple of seasons is the incredible atmosphere generated by our supporters – both home and away. Bukayo says it’s really been having an effect on the players lately, and could yet prove crucial this month, with two of our last three matches here at Emirates Stadium.

“Yeah as a team we have all spoken about it, we feel and hear the difference in the stadium, how much noise and how much support the fans are giving us. We really appreciate it because it definitely helps us raise our level.

“I love the song the supporters have for me - it’s obviously really nice to have your own song so I just want to thank all the fans for that, and for all the boys’ songs. I love the Kai Havertz one right now too, and also the Saliba song too.”

He says the chants also take him back to his days watching the team from the stands when he was a youth player, when he "...loved watching players like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Alexis was a top player, always gave his best for the team – going forwards or back – scoring loads of goals, winning games.”

So off the pitch and on it, the feeling of togetherness and unity has certainly flourished in recent times. Looking from the inside, how does Bukayo believe that sense of family has been built at the club?

“Firstly, all of the players get on well with each other. It’s just happened naturally over time, I don’t think anything has been forced. The pain of last year as well has brought us together and we are all so hungry to go one step further this year, but also in future years too. We want to win.

“We can definitely become a lot better, he continues. “We are young, we are hungry, we’ve got quality but also we have many more years ahead of us and we’ll have lots of experiences together. Last year was an experience for us, then this year back in the Champions League. We want to learn and develop from all of that and keep improving.”

“I love the song the supporters have for me. I love the Kai Havertz one right now, and also the Saliba song too”

Our no. 7 won’t turn 23 until early next season, but he’s already the leading scorer and appearance maker in the squad. Coming into today’s game with Bournemouth he has played 224 times (197 of them from the start) and scored 57 goals – level with Malcolm Macdonald and Cesc Fabregas as the club’s all-time 42nd joint top scorer.

Often on the receiving end of the opposition’s more vigorous challenges, Bukayo has picked up more bumps and bruises than most during those 200-plus games to date, so how does he keep up his incredible consistency and availability?

“It’s just the hunger to win that keeps me going,” he shrugs. “That’s why I keep getting up. It’s part of it. I feel like I’m physically much stronger than I was four or five years ago. I’ve got more experience now, in terms of knowing which tackles to go through and which ones to jump. I try to avoid the big tackles, so I think I’m much smarter now as well as being more physical.

“I’m just trying to play the game, do what the game takes. If I stay on the floor then it can disrupt the momentum we’ve built up in the team, so I just try to get on with it.”

For the fourth successive season Bukayo has surpassed 50 appearances (including international games) and he reveals that Mikel Arteta has challenged him to keep reaching those numbers year on year.

“Yes, he told me that the elite players all do that, so if I want to be at that level too then I need to be ready to play that many games. I need to try and help my team in all of those games too. It’s big numbers, but it's achievable. You see the best players in the world doing it, so I believe I can do it as well.”

It’s what happens between the games as well, that’s crucial to his durability. He says his preferred method of recovering after a gruelling 90 minutes in the Premier League is a sauna rather than an ice bath, adding: “but it’s a combination of everything, eating, sleeping – your recovery strategies.”

That’s something else that the manager and coaching staff have had a big say in over the years, and another benefit of being at the club so long. The medical team have got to know the capabilities of his body and can set schedules accordingly. That, and the trust of Arteta, seems to be a winning combination.

“Yeah, I have a great relationship with him, he’s been really good with me,” Bukayo adds. “He’s trusted me, plays me a lot and I feel like he’s getting the best out of me
so I’m really grateful to him for that. I hope there is a lot more to come now.”

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