Bukayo Saka: England’s Man of Steel

Bukayo Saka: England’s Man of Steel

Don’t let Bukayo Saka’s infectious smile fool you. The England winger is as tough as they come and Arsenal’s medical team can testify to that.

After one Premier League game last season, they were horrified to see a gaping wound on Saka’s leg after he rolled down a sock, only to be even more astonished when he declared himself fit to play a few days later.

Similarly, do not assume he ignored Rio Ferdinand’s suggestion that he is not world class. Saka saw it, heard it and stored it away in the memory.

Saka’s warmth and authenticity make him a likeable character, but there is a harder side that the world does not see. It is his steely core that Gunners boss Mikel Arteta and England manager Gareth Southgate admire most.

One of Saka’s first moves as he strode into England’s hotel here in Germany was to check out the facilities that would aid his recovery between matches. Saunas and steam rooms — he has been suitably impressed. He is obsessed with rest and repair.

England star Bukayo Saka is as hard as nails and has forged a tough side to his game

It is a well-worn phrase, but the attacker is often one of the first to arrive for training at Arsenal’s HQ in Hertfordshire and one of the last to leave. He stays for massages and ice baths.

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He generally has more to recover from than others. Kicked from pillar to post, the treatment he receives from defenders is a huge bone of contention at Arsenal, who believe the roughhouse treatment is unpunished far too often.

It used to eat away at Saka, too. Unprotected by referees and abused by defenders, he was agitated by it all.

He will receive brutal treatment here in Germany too, but will still find a way to fuel his next run, pass and goal.

When Saka first broke into the England squad in 2020, and was subsequently named for the Euros eight months later, Luke Shaw described his fledgling international team-mate as his little brother.

Now playing in his third major international tournament, Saka has been promoted to big brother status.

The treatment he receives from defenders is a huge bone of contention at Arsenal

The treatment he receives from defenders is a huge bone of contention at Arsenal

He'll receive brutal treatment in Germany, but will find a way to fuel his next run, pass and goal

He’ll receive brutal treatment in Germany, but will find a way to fuel his next run, pass and goal

Though only 22, Saka (left) is already an elder statesman of this England team

Though only 22, Saka (left) is already an elder statesman of this England team

Asked if the Arsenal man has a growing influence on the squad, midfielder Kobbie Mainoo, 19, said: ‘Yes, definitely. He’s had a lot of experience, he was playing for England since he was younger than my age even, so to have him around, he’s a great guy, he’s as nice as everyone says, a joy to be around.’

Though only 22, Saka is already an elder statesman of this team. The younger players gravitate to him. He is an example of what is possible, a wise head on young shoulders who has earned the respect of everyone.

His importance is unquestioned, especially as he is the squad’s second top goalscorer behind Harry Kane.

He is expected to win his 34th cap against Denmark, which is some accumulation for someone so young. His opinion holds gravitas at the team’s Weimar base. Of course, his experience lends weight to his growing influence, but he is also learning to lead.

Saka has grown close to Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard and is taking on more responsibility at London Colney.

He is doing so here in Germany, too. Together with club colleague Declan Rice, the duo will lead England into the present and future.

Against Serbia on Sunday, Saka looked back to his dynamic best. In the first half he made six runs in behind the opposition’s defence, the most of any player on the pitch.

All the talk of whether he should make way for Cole Palmer faded away in the space of a fine 45-minute spell of power, trickery and speed.

Serbia could not handle him and droves of Premier League full backs will know that feeling.

Against Serbia on Sunday, Saka looked back to his dynamic best as he ran the channels

Against Serbia on Sunday, Saka looked back to his dynamic best as he ran the channels

In the first half he made six runs in behind the opposition’s defence, the most of any player

In the first half he made six runs in behind the opposition’s defence, the most of any player

Yet there is a sense that his rapid rise to global prominence comes with pitfalls. It can be a blessing, but also a curse.

When you set such high standards, criticism is never far around the corner when you fall below your level.

It is something Saka has learned to deal with, yet he continues to do so with that unmistakable smile. Who knows, maybe he will change Ferdinand’s mind by the end of the tournament.

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