Bukayo Saka’s versatility makes Czechs beat as England have fun | Euro 2020
A curious thing happened on Tuesday evening. England played a European Championship game at Wembley and it was – and I had to search for that word, so sorry if the meaning isn’t quite right – pleasant. People sang and applauded. The national stadium, so often the scene of irritation, felt content and noisy. England moved timidly – and not without a few grunts – in the last 16. And one night when Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire made their return, the England leader on the pitch was a 19-year-old from West London with five caps to his name.
An electrifying teenage forward weaves his way through a major tournament defense. We all think we’ve seen this movie before, and if you listen carefully, you can probably already hear the BBC’s tearful edit coming to an end. But amid the complications and paradoxes of England’s performance here, uncertain fates and futures, at least one fact seemed pretty clear. As ‘It’s Coming Home’ rained down from the stands, the scene belonged to a man born just 92 by bus from Wembley. Welcome – belatedly – to the summer of Bukayo Saka.
If that smacks of the hype slightly then it might be worth going back 90 minutes, when England started their final group game with qualifying about the only thing they could be sure of. . In fact, the microwave performance against Scotland had added its own layers of danger and anxiety to this game, even before Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell’s late withdrawal.
Chilwell’s inability likely won’t have unduly troubled Southgate, given he appears to have been relegated to fourth behind Kieran Trippier, Luke Shaw and possibly even Southgate himself. But Mount’s absence, with his live ability to tie midfield and attacking together, threatened to deprive England’s top three of good quick possession. At the very least, there was no guarantee of joy here.
At which point, from the right of the stage: enter Saka. Perhaps it was not surprising, under the circumstances, that England started out as a team desperate to prove that they had nothing to prove. Raheem Sterling hit the post with a tricky lob. Kyle Walker eagerly ran down the right flank like a man looking for a lost contact lens. Jack Grealish’s People’s Republic more than justified his promotion, adding class and mystery, and providing the tricky cross for Sterling’s opening goal.
But in fact, the movement had been started half a minute earlier by Saka, driving excitingly from deep within his own half. Tomas Soucek was taken out of the game with an outrageous body feint. And by the time Sterling had put the ball in the net, the Wembley crowd had already let go of their usual facade of irony, boredom and world-weary cynicism and started to compile hymns to their new crown prince.
There are several reasons why Saka feels like he’s slipped under the radar a bit. First of all, its raw numbers are really nothing special. He has just five goals and three assists for Arsenal this season. Most often, it is he who plays the pass before the pass: or in the case of Arsenal the pass before the pass before Nicolas Pépé throws the ball directly for a goal kick. So often this season, Saka has felt like a sparkling player tied down by the fools around him.
The other main reason is that no one really seems to know Saka’s best position. He made his debut against Wales eight months ago as a left-back. (Oh, sorry Ben – fifth pick.) Sometimes Mikel Arteta tried it on defense, on the wing, in center midfielder, left midfielder, behind striker or sometimes even a daring hybrid of all of them. . Saka’s versatility, his greatest asset, is also a curse.
So here is the answer: don’t think too much about it. Just let him play. And although he ostensibly deputized for Phil Foden on the right wing, for the first hour Saka did pretty much what he wanted. He tiptoed up the sideline. He speculatively wandered into the # 10 role. He could retreat to receive or hide on the shoulder of the last man. Without the ball he could hold the position, step up to intercept, cross clearly at the back post. It doesn’t matter which tie-in midfielder and attacking: Saka was the keystone of England, appearing everywhere, dusting the pitch with stardust, making the thing work.
Admittedly, the Czechs seemed to have few answers. Midway through the first half, their left-back Jan Boril responded to Saka’s advances by simply running in the opposite direction as fast as he could, backpedaling furiously in deadly terror of having to engage. That’s when you almost started to feel sorry for these seasoned international defenders. Please, Bukayo. This man has a wife and children at home. Be reasonable.
As the final minutes drew to a close, thoughts inevitably turned to the Byzantine game of second-round permutations, rekindling the debate over whether England were really better off finishing second in the group and avoiding a likely clash. against France, Portugal or Germany. Perhaps this point needs to be re-made: Any team that willfully shun the fear of a home game in order to avoid a potentially stronger opponent is unlikely to be a champion in the making. Now is not the time to procrastinate or doubt.
Now, more than ever, it’s time to believe a little.