Bukayo Saka has impressed with his club, and now after his performance against Czech Republic on Tuesday night, with his country too
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For Freddie Ljungberg, it was never about brawn when he first set eyes on Bukayo Saka as a 15-year-old at Arsenal, but more about the youngster’s brain and his ability to take on information, use it and adapt to his situation.
That quality was evident for England at Wembley on Tuesday night, as Saka, still only aged 19, adapted to his first-ever major tournament experience with ease as he produced a man-of-the-match performance in the European Championships.
“I’m not surprised at all by how well he did,” said an evidently proud Ljungberg. “Bukayo’s not phased by things. He’s quite calm, sees the problems as they are and tries to deal with them.”
Saka was big and powerful for his age when he started working under former midfielder Ljungberg in the Arsenal youth set up, and that was something that was used against him when others evaluated his strengths and weaknesses.
But Ljungberg never saw a player who was making his mark by bullying opponents with his physical attributes. Instead, he was attracted to Saka’s ability to take on information and use it – which the Swede immediately believed marked him out as a teenager with great potential.
“Bukayo was very powerful and quite big and some people were like ‘yeah but it’s only because of power that he might have success’,” said Ljungberg. “But I tried to tell people that I didn’t look at the power or whether the player is small or big. I tried to look at his decision making, his execution, did he do the right things, or was he just using his body to bully people and then score an easy goal?
“He didn’t and I spoke to him about when to cross in certain situations and other things he needed to do in different scenarios. Because I played as a winger, we could talk about certain angles he should take and certain positions. I may have been taught that when I was 30 years old, so it was great to give that to Bukayo when he was so young.
“He’s so quick and understanding, and he could take everything on board. His decision making was top. And then we could work on his execution, on those details, so the cross became good or the finish was good or the turn was better.
“You could see those things that, in my opinion, show a very good player from a not so good player if they do them correctly or not. From a young age, I felt he could take it on board and develop it very well.
“He has physical attributes that are tremendous, but his thinking and how he uses and takes the decisions and execution, that’s what, in my opinion, makes him stand out. He understands the concepts very quickly and he can adapt quickly to how someone else plays. He can see the strengths or weaknesses of a team-mate.”
Saka was the 'star' of the show at Wembley on Tuesday night
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It was Ljungberg who insisted that Saka should be fast-tracked to the Under-23s, when he returned to Arsenal from Wolfsburg as Under-23s manager, and the Swede also gave him his Premier League debut on New Year’s Day, 2019.
Such was their bond that Saka and his family were among the first people Ljungberg contacted when he left Arsenal last summer, so they did not find out through the media.
“I think Bukayo was 16 or 17 when I came back from Germany to be the Under-23s manager and I said ‘he’s going to be with me’,” said Ljungberg. “And people said ‘no he’s not, he’s going to be with the 18s’. I said ‘no, if I’m the boss of this team and I’m doing the development of young players, he’s coming and I’m going to coach him because he’s going to show you and you’ll understand he’s going to be good enough’. And he was.
“Bukayo is the one doing it and he must take all of the credit. He proves himself to people all the time. It’s not just been totally straightforward, but he’s the type of guy that if you give him the chance he proves that he can make the right decision and he just goes from strength to strength.”
Saka’s personality and adaptability make him a dream to coach, as England manager Gareth Southgate has found out. He has already played at left wing-back and on the right wing, where he did so well against Czech Republic, for his club and country.
“Bukayo is clever and he can adapt, and that has given him his chance with England, and now he is taking it,” said Ljungberg. “In terms of his best position, it depends on what the coach wants out of Bukayo because he is so intelligent. If you look at his stats, he is so effective and I like the position where he can make a difference. He is a manager’s dream.”
Having won 75 caps for Sweden and played in five major tournaments, Ljungberg knows exactly what Saka will be experiencing with an entire country now talking about him.
“If I look at myself, it’s the first time you feel that total love from the country when you play well for your national team,” said Ljungberg. “That’s an emotional thing that you’ve never experienced before with your club. It’s a new sensation, but I know Bukayo can handle it.
“I don’t know why, but throughout his career people often talk about other players more than him. But Bukayo gets better and better all the time and I don’t think there’s anything stopping him. He’s going to be amazing.”
England vs Czech Republic – Euro 2020