Bukayo Saka: Nigeria’s Newest Arsenal Prodigy

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Nwankwo Kanu

Since Nwankwo Kanu’s debut for Arsenal in the ‘90s after moving from Inter Milan, Nigeria players have been trying to hold their own with the North London side. Alex Iwobi is presently commanding a regular shirt at the Emirate and only last week, another Nigerian, Bukayo Saka, had a feel of first team play with the Gunners

Last Thursday, 17-year-old Bukayo Saka got his maiden foray with the senior squad, stepping off the bench against Vorskla in the Europa League.

The speedy winger has turned heads with consistent performances for the U-23s this season and won a penalty in the recent Checkatrade Trophy match against Forest Green Rovers after beating more than four defenders with a skillful run.

“Today Saka also played with a good performance, with a very big personality and we were speaking at half-time,” Emery said about the winger who has contributed to 11 goals for the youth teams this season, which works out as a goal every 79.5 minutes.

”They were trying… his personality is very important for us to continue trying to go 1v1 and break lines with his quality.

”He played with a very big personality and sometimes with a very good performance. It’s very important for his confidence and for us also, because we can look at this player and see the quality to help us.”

Born and raised in London, Saka is of Nigerian descent and has represented England at youth level where he currently plays for the U-19s.

He recently scored just three minutes into his debut in a 4-0 win over Moldova, finishing Stephen Walker’s through ball to score the third goal for England.

A direct, tricky left winger who is one of the youngest players in the U-23 set-up, Saka remains highly regarded by his coaches at Hale End and there is a growing belief that he could be close to making more first-team appearances if his performances continue on the same level for the youth teams.

“Bukayo is a great talent and played very, very well today,” Gunners youth coach Freddie Ljungberg told Arsenal Player after the 4-0 win over Liverpool in September.

“We’ve given him 15 minutes here and 20 minutes there to help him get used to the tempo, the speed and strength of opponents, and he’s taken it in his stride. He’s just going to get better and better, keep his head down and keep on working.”

Saka turned down Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Fulham and Watford to sign for Arsenal as a child.

He impressed supporters in his full debut at the Emirates Stadium against Qarabag in the Europa League with an energetic and exciting performance, even if he admitted afterward he should’ve scored at the end.

Even though many Arsenal fans probably hadn’t even heard of the youngster before this season, he’s been around the club for eight years now, joining as a nine-year-old. The winger explained that when he first signed, he had offers from plenty of other London clubs, but turned them all down.

“I had invitations from Spurs, Chelsea, Fulham and Watford but the only choice was Arsenal,” said Saka. “I enjoyed the way that Arsenal played so the choice was easy for me.

“I trained at Hale End and signed when I was nine years old. Receiving a scholarship and then signing a professional contract a couple of months ago and playing for the first-team has made this year very special already.”

Saka has consistently found himself fast-tracked to higher levels throughout his time with the Arsenal academy. Reaching the U-23s before he turned 17 was impressive enough, with all the competition at that level at the moment. Now he’s in contention for the first-team squad.

It says a lot about Saka’s talent that he was eligible to play in the FA Youth Cup last Wednesday, a competition for U-18s, yet he started for the senior side the next day instead.

As in, hype aside, how soon might we expect him to make an impact on the first team, or start appearing on the bench, at the very least?

It is amazing how clear the road ahead is for Saka. There is no one in his way. Not a soul. Maybe Alex Iwobi, but Iwobi is a creative midfielder with a specific skill set and can be rotated around.

Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are both there as well, but their diminishing value and Emery’s push towards youth couldn’t favour Saka any more than it already is.

Saka brings something no one else currently provides on the first team. He brings the ability to shake defenders with ease. And while we have yet to see how he would handle the added pressure of Premier League opposition, it’s safe to say that he doesn’t shy away from the spotlight.

All things considered, it’s a bit hasty to expect his impact to be felt this season. Not even Reiss Nelson could manage that, though if Saka continues on the trajectory that he’s on, Nelson may be playing second fiddle before long.