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Bukayo Saka: I can take the knocks – I am stronger and smarter now

Bukayo Saka raises his fists in the air in celebration
Bukayo Saka says he has become physically and mentally stronger - Getty Images/Henry Nicholls

There are times, Bukayo Saka says, when he looks down at his legs to see all manner of bruises, knocks and cuts. “It is not nice,” he says. “But it’s part of it.”

For Saka, the face of the Arsenal revolution and one of the leaders of their title challenge, there is an acceptance that this is simply the reality of his footballing life. Few players receive as much of a kicking, but few players are as adept at dealing with that particular – and often painful – challenge.

A lesson learned by many defenders over the past five years is that you can kick Saka to the ground, but you cannot kick him out of the game. Saka stands up, asks for the ball, and goes again. And again, and again.

“The hunger to win keeps me going,” he says. “That is why I keep getting up.”

How does he handle it? The first part is in the body, and the second part in the mind. “I am physically much stronger than I was four or five years ago,” says Saka, who will be braced for more heavy challenges in Sunday’s north London derby against Tottenham Hotspur.

‘Just because you get a kick, you can’t hide away’

“For each tackle, I have more experience in terms of which ones to go for and which ones to jump, to try to avoid a big tackle. So I am much smarter, as well as physically stronger than I was.”

Saka, clearly, has rationalised all of this in his mind. He thinks about the game, and about his role within it, and he knows what he needs to do for his team. Sometimes, that means taking the physical knocks that come with being one of Europe’s most explosive and decisive wingers.

“There are two elements,” he says. “The first is that defenders can’t do that all game. They will get yellow carded and then they have to stop. The second element is that, as an attacking player, you are in the team to score goals and create goals.

“Part of that is going to involve having to beat defenders and, yeah, they are going to try their best to stop you. One way they like to stop you is kicking you. But just because you get a kick, you can’t hide away and not do that. Because that is what you are in the team to do.”

Saka on the ground
Saka has often been targeted by defenders with rough treatment - Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane

Within the Arsenal fanbase and the wider game, there are fears about what this all might mean for Saka’s long-term future. In an interview with Telegraph Sport last month, Arsenal legend Bob Wilson expressed his fear that Saka will be “kicked out of the game” by the time he is 25.

Does Saka worry about that? “No, not really,” he says. “I don’t try to put those negative thoughts in my head because then I will start to be more shy in my duels and it will affect my game. I don’t really worry on that side.”

What Saka does worry about, however, is looking after himself – the 22-year-old makes his fitness an absolute priority between games.

“I have different strategies,” he says of his methods. “I just try to do as much as possible. It is a combination of everything: sleeping, eating, recovery strategies.” (The sauna, he adds, is much more enjoyable than the ice-bath).

Saka’s durability is one of his greatest strengths as a player, with this his fourth consecutive season of playing more than 40 club games. It has been intense but, at the club, there is an acceptance that these are the numbers required to be a top-level player. As Mikel Arteta said two years ago: “Look at the top players in the world, they play 70 matches and make the difference.”

Saka says: “He told me the elite players all do it. If I want to get to that level I have to be ready to play that many games, and try to help my team win each of those games as well. They are big numbers but they are achievable. You see the best players in the world do it and I believe I can do it, as well.”

‘I know what it means to beat Tottenham’

It could be argued that Saka is already an elite-level player. This season he has scored 18 goals and registered 14 assists for Arsenal, and he has now shone in both the Champions League and the World Cup.

It perhaps requires a trophy for Saka to confirm his status as one of the world’s best. Last year, the Premier League title proved to be beyond Arsenal. This year, the race with Manchester City and Liverpool could go all the way. Saka is an avid watcher of the game and he was on his sofa on Wednesday and Thursday nights, taking it all in as Liverpool lost to Everton and City beat Brighton.

“Each game is like a final for all of us competing for the title,” says Saka. “Especially Sunday. With it being a north London derby as well, it is going to be even bigger. I know what it means to myself, to my family and friends, and obviously to our fans, to beat Tottenham.”

It is often the mental side of the game that separates the best young talents from the rest. To hear from Saka is to get a glimpse into the mindset that has carried him, along with his obvious physical and technical gifts, to this exalted position.

Asked if he is proud of his output this season, Saka says: “Sometimes I feel I don’t look back and be proud of myself. Because I am always wanting more and always wanting to do better. Each game I come off the pitch and think: could I have scored more? Could I have done this better?”

Growing up, Saka idolised Cristiano Ronaldo. A young winger who became the deadliest footballer in the game. Saka hopes to walk the same path, irrespective of those bruises on his shins and those cuts on his ankles.

“He [Ronaldo] just exploded and turned into a goalscoring machine. I think he inspired a lot of players to try to follow in his footsteps. But at the same time I just want to try to be myself, and do what is required to play for Arsenal – and win at Arsenal.”

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