BUKAYO SAKA has one big wish ahead of his 21st birthday on Monday.
On Sunday at Old Trafford, Manchester United stand in the way of Arsenal continuing their perfect start to the season — and Saka being able to fully enjoy his latest milestone.
The Arsenal and England star said: “I’m looking forward to my 21st for sure. The perfect present would be a win over United.”
Saka is such a key player for club and country — and has had so many ups and downs with both, it’s hard to believe he is so young.
He laughed: “I don’t feel like I’ve been around for ages! I feel I still have a long way to go in terms of my development.
“I’ve played some important matches and a lot of matches, which has accelerated my learning but there’s still a lot more to learn.”
Life has changed beyond recognition for Saka in a few short years.
In a scene from the All Or Nothing Amazon documentary that followed Arsenal’s 2021-2022 campaign, he told team-mates about being spotted in a supermarket despite doing his best to conceal his identity.
Saka said: “You just learn to adapt. It’s become part of my life.
“Things I could do before, or places I could go without being recognised, I can’t really do it.
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“It’s part of the job, my dream job, so I’m not going to get sad about it.
“What do I miss most? Being able to go to Nando’s, you know what I’m saying, to sit inside, just like normal.”
In many ways, Saka IS a normal young man of his age, interested in music, fashion and hanging out with his friends.
But at the same time he is also the poster boy of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal revolution.
Saka became the first player born in the 21st century to appear in the Premier League when he came on against Fulham in January 2019.
But it was in the following, turbulent season — after Arteta replaced Unai Emery in December — that Saka’s career took off.
He said: “When I came in, it wasn’t easy. There were quite a few ups and downs. I learnt to understand that is football.
“It was the same at the start of last season, when we lost the first three games. This time we have won the first five.”
Saka and Arsenal have come a long way in the last year. One of the best scenes in the Amazon series featured Saka meeting young Gunners fan Teddy.
The Isle of White schoolboy, 7, sent a letter of support — and his pocket money — to his idol after he was racially abused for failing to convert a penalty in the Euro 2020 final shootout.
Saka is shown surprising Teddy while he was on a tour of the Emirates, then having an ice cream and a kickabout, just as the youngster had spoken about in his heartfelt message.
Saka said: “For the kid to do that for me, it means he values me a lot and I mean a lot to him.
“For me to do something back is the least I could do. I’m glad he had a good time. I remember being that kid looking up to people — but I never sent anyone my pocket money.”
Of the three England players racially abused for missing penalties in the Euros final, Saka bounced back the strongest last season.
While United pair Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford struggled for form and lost their England places, the young winger was Arsenal’s top-scorer with 11 Prem goals.
One of them was a well-taken, pressure penalty in a 3-1 win over the Red Devils the last time the sides met back in April.
At a day short of 21, Saka is too young to remember when clashes between the two clubs were the main events of the domestic season — virtual or actual title deciders.
But he is crystal clear how crucial it is for the Gunners to play those kind of matches again.
Saka said: “It’s very important. It’s what the club deserves and where the club belongs.
“Of course, the United fans and players will be feeling the same.
“It’s a special rivalry. I’ve seen the games from before, with the big tackles and the fighting.”
After Arsenal’s five wins over teams who will not be challenging for Champions League qualification, the trip to Old Trafford is the chance to lay down a significant marker.
Saka said: “It’s a very big thing because United are a quality team and in good form now. If we can go there and win it will give us a lot of confidence going forward.”
Looking further into the future, Saka has made positive noises about signing a new deal.
After helping the club rebuild, he wants to be part of bringing back the glory days.
Saka said: “That’s my goal. We’re in a good place right now.
“The next step for us is to try to bring some trophies, win more big games and play at the highest level.”
Could he see himself staying at Arsenal for life? Becoming a Gunners legend like Thierry Henry and being immortalised in bronze outside the Emirates?
Saka said: “There’s not many people who can say they’re an Arsenal icon or have a statue outside the stadium. So the answer to your question is definitely yes.”
Gunners chief Arteta, meanwhile, says sticking to your guns and being trusted to make big calls are crucial to reviving a fallen giant.
He said: “For me, it’s about being consistent. So when you try to bring an idea, you have a vision and you share that vision with the club.
“We stick together, we believed in what we did and, hopefully, we can achieve it.”
Arsenal’s belief in Arteta’s project was tested a year ago when the Gunners sat rock bottom.
He said: “You have to understand what kind of reaction you need and fix it as quick as possible.
“We have special talents, special people, and a club that is willing to promote talent from our academy, and you can see the results of it.”