Bukayo Saka will break the Arsenal record for most consecutive Premier League appearances should he feature against Fulham on Saturday.
Saka equalled Paul Merson’s record, which he set between 4 February 1995 and 23 February 1997, when he made his 82nd consecutive League appearance for the Gunners at Selhurst Park on Monday night.
The winger’s run started at the end of the 2020/21 season against West Brom, with the 21-year-old playing in every single Premier League game during the 2021/22 (36 starts) and 2022/23 (37 starts) campaigns.
Supreme talent and an impressive knack for avoiding any major injury setbacks have to be credited with allowing Saka to sustain such a run, and he’s a sure bet to break Merson’s record against Fulham this weekend.
Bukayo Saka set to break 26-year-old Arsenal record against Fulham
The 21-year-old has been set for superstardom since he burst onto the scene under Unai Emery in the Europa League as a 17-year-old. Saka has blossomed into a bona fide star amid Mikel Arteta’s exciting project and is recognised as one of the very best players in the world after a scintillating 2022/23 campaign.
The winger featured over 60 times for club and country last season, with Saka’s campaign only coming to an end 26 days before Arsenal’s pre-season began for the 2023/24 term against FC Nurnberg in July.
Saka has understandably been used relentlessly by Arteta given his importance to the Spaniard’s success, and the boss expects players of Saka’s calibre to sustain peak levels of performance despite the heavy workload.
“Look at the top players in the world. They play 70 matches, play every three days and make the difference and win the game,” Arteta said in October 2022 after some questioned the necessity to start Saka in a Europa League fixture against PSV.
“You want to be at the top, you have to be able to do that. And if we start to put something different in the mind of a young player, I think we are making a huge mistake … I want them knocking on my door (saying), ‘I want to play, I want to win the game’.
“There is no fitness coach in the world that is going to tell me that they cannot do it because I’ve seen it,” he added.
Arteta’s demands will get the best out of Saka, but some have questioned whether this workload at a young age could compromise his long-term development. The 21-year-old is yet to sustain a major injury, but the physical stress and strain that comes with potentially playing 90 minutes twice a week could hinder Saka further down the line.
While the very best of the 21st century, Lionel Messi (200) and Cristiano Ronaldo (242), had both registered more than 200 senior appearances before their 22nd birthdays – Saka has 210 – there are very few who enjoyed stellar and prolonged careers when they were overused before they reached their prime.
The Gunners have found it tough to find a reliable alternative to Saka given the standard to which he plays his role in Arteta’s system, but for the sake of the player’s career, Arsenal have to offer the winger some respite in 2023/24 and beyond.