Bukayo Saka Continues to Defy

On July 11, 2021, England faced Italy in the Euro 2020 final. A home advantage at Wembley unfortunately did not spur the Three Lions to victory in regular time. With the scores level after 120 minutes of play, penalties were required.

Harry Kane tucked home his spot kick, as did Harry Maguire. But then, Marcus Rashford’s shot went out off the post. Jadon Sancho saw his saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma. England’s final penalty needed to go in to prevent elimination. 

The likes of Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, and Jordan Henderson were all present to meet the moment. But it was Bukayo Saka who stepped up. At only 19 years of age, in front of untold millions of onlookers, the young Englishman took the most important kick of his career. Unfortunately, it was saved. And England watched Italy lift the trophy on their soil.

In the aftermath, Gareth Southgate attempted to take the blame for assigning Saka the final penalty. But the damage was already done. The world had seen Saka miss when England’s best chance at a first trophy since 1966 was on the line. He, Rashford, and Sancho were the faces of the nation’s footballing failure.

As is sadly an all too predictable result of such incidents, Saka consequently faced persecution from the masses. Online, racist abuse was hurled at him. Everywhere he turned, he encountered the devastating message that he had let his country down. Luckily, he had the support of Arsenal, the club faithful, and many others to get him through the ordeal. But one thing was certain: Saka was not likely to attempt a penalty anytime soon.

However, he disproved that only a matter of months later. At Stamford Bridge, after a seemingly ragtag Arsenal side surprisingly surged to a 3-2 lead, Saka earned a penalty when Cesar Azpilicueta bundled him over in Chelsea’s box in the 90th minute. Gabriel Martinelli, Granit Xhaka, and Martin Ødegaard presented the most likely options to take the spot kick. But it was Arsenal’s No. 7 who stepped up to attempt the penalty. 

After the heartbreak of missing in the final and the unforgiving abuse that followed, Saka would have been forgiven for receding into the background on this occasion. It would have been perfectly natural to stay away from the thing that had caused him so much pain. Perhaps Arsenal’s lead and the knowledge that they were well into stoppage time helped ease the nerves but nonetheless, taking a penalty in such a significant match at such a significant point in the season represented a grave risk.

Regardless, Saka dove headfirst into the danger and came out on the other side with Arsenal’s fourth goal. He coolly smashed the ball past Edouard Mendy, putting the match to bed. As he ran to celebrate with the away fans, the relief in the air was palpable.

Saka had already redeemed himself after the Euros with impressive performances throughout the 2021-22 season. Tucking away the penalty only proved that Saka could handle the pressure of a spot kick too. But when Saka was again fouled in the opponent’s box only a few days later at home to Manchester United, he opted once more to approach the penalty spot. Scott McTominay, ever the bully, knocked the ball out of Saka’s hands, hoping to faze the Arsenal man as the referee readied the area. But just as he had in west London, he finished it with aplomb. The goal would prove to be the winner.

Almost six months on, circumstances are different. Gabriel Jesus arrived from Manchester City in the summer and has quickly assumed the role of Arsenal’s primary goalscorer. Martinelli has evolved into one of the deadliest wingers in the Premier League. The Gunners sit in pole position even as Erling Haaland rampages toward an all-time goal haul in the blue half of Manchester.

So when Liverpool conceded a penalty at the Emirates on Sunday, it was somehow yet again a surprise to witness Saka emerge from the throng of Arsenal players gathered around the ball. Unlike with the previous two spot kicks, the winger had not been fouled; in this case, Jesus was kicked by Thiago. Saka had already notched a goal previously during the game, while Arsenal’s new No. 9 had not. At 2-2, the match felt on a knife-edge. A successful penalty would very well have settled the affair and returned Arsenal to first place. To put it simply, the stakes were almost as high as it gets in the English top flight and a more seasoned finisher was present and motivated.

But if Bukayo Saka has demonstrated one thing in his still-budding career, it is defiance. He defied expectations when he broke into Unai Emery’s team and became the first player born in the 21st century to feature in a Premier League match. He defied limits when he supplanted the club’s record signing at right wing, and again when he became a key part of the England national team while still a teenager. He defies opposition players every week by getting back up after he’s been kicked for the umpteenth time.

For Arsenal’s beloved starboy, the wave of hate after the Euros and the pressure of taking another penalty after it… well, those are just two more things to add to the list. So perhaps for Saka, it was second nature for him to approach the spot and take on Alisson Becker. Steering the ball into the bottom left corner was all in a day’s work for him, and nothing more. Taking charge of such an important moment in the game, perhaps in the season, at 21 years old, is just who Saka is.

He is an immensely gifted footballer, but the truth is that his talent alone isn’t why he is where he is. Saka’s superpower isn’t his ability to beat a man or the intelligent runs he makes. It is his courageous persistence, his quietly fierce disregard for obstruction. That is what allows him to embody the values Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal operates by, and what makes him one of the best players in the English league.

Saka has conquered his Euro 2020 setback in the most convincing manner: by taking a weakness and turning it into a strength. Since that fateful save by Donnarumma, the Hale End product has now likely become Arsenal’s de facto penalty taker. It is an advantage he will undoubtedly use. Even he, as brave and relentless as he is, will need all the advantages he can get as the challenges of helping Arsenal return to the Champions League, bringing World Cup glory back to England, and perhaps even winning the Premier League title all loom in the distance.

But knowing Saka, he might just defy all those obstacles too.

Sham writes and podcasts regularly about The Arsenal, and is already exhausted by the number of weddings he has to attend in the next year. He can be followed on Twitter @dopegooner.