Bukayo Saka's strength and power was on display at Wembley
They would not like to admit it now, but there were more than a few members of Arsenal’s academy staff who did not regard Bukayo Saka as a potential first-team player. In the early teenage years he was big for his age, physically dominant against the other kids, and some observers questioned whether he relied too much on his speed and strength.
The fear was that, when he played against adults and no longer had his physical advantages, Saka might struggle. In hindsight, such concerns can only be described as laughable. Rather than shrinking as he moved up the ranks, and then into the first-team, Saka has adapted and thrived with each leap forward.
A constant theme of Saka’s career has been that he becomes better as he is surrounded by better players. It was only when he started to train with the Arsenal senior squad, for example, that he began to display the technical ability and composure that had sometimes been missing in the youth teams.
To those who oversaw Saka’s transition from oversized youth prospect into first-team option, and then from first-team option into arguably Arsenal’s most important player, his performance for England on Tuesday night will have come as no surprise. Here was another step up, another test of his ability to adapt, and once again he thrived at a new level.
At the age of just 19, Saka demonstrated the same maturity and decision-making ability he has shown on a regular basis in the last two seasons. Arsenal’s player of the year was England’s man of the match against the Czech Republic, doing more than anyone else to drive the team forward and open up the opposition defence.
Bukayo Saka with his 'Star of the Match' award
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Operating from a right-wing position, Saka showed willingness to drop into central areas and dribble with the ball. It was from such a move that he helped to create Raheem Sterling’s winner, and it was largely Saka’s running from midfield that allowed England to pull the Czech defenders out of position.
“That is one of my qualities and is what I have done all season at my club,” he said. “The manager told me to play how I do at my club. Play confident, play free. That’s what I did.”
Starting alongside Sterling, Jack Grealish and Harry Kane, Saka looked more than capable of excelling on the international stage. These are better players than he is used to playing with at club level, providing him with more intelligent runs and offering greater technical ability. His combination with Grealish, especially, reflected their shared wavelength on the pitch as well as their burgeoning friendship behind the scenes.
“We had already qualified so there was no pressure on us,” said Saka. Except for him there evidently was some pressure: this was probably the biggest game of his life, and it was his opportunity to earn a starting place in the team for the knockout rounds.
England vs Czech Republic – Euro 2020
Whether or not he did enough to keep his spot in Southgate’s lineup remains to be seen. What seems clear, though, is that Southgate is just as enamoured with Saka’s talent and personality as Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager.
For Arsenal, and now for England, Saka is the star pupil. The golden child. Sweet, polite, diligent, talented, open-minded: he is all a manager could ever want from a young player. At Arsenal he has played as a left winger, right winger, left wing-back, right wing-back, left-back and central midfielder, doing well in each role.
Within the club, there are those who believe Arteta has his favourites. Saka is unquestionably seen as one of them. Indeed, there are some fringe players who are known to cast envious looks at the relationship that Saka has built with his manager, who spent much of last season heaping public praise on his most talented youngster.
In recent months it has been striking to see how much power Saka has added to his game. He was always sharp, and was certainly not weak when he first broke through into the Arsenal side, but at first he appeared occasionally lightweight in the Premier League. Now, he appears to be able to breeze past defenders — or shrug them off — and he looked frighteningly quick at times in the first half at Wembley.
Over the past few days, there had been much discussion about the absence of Jadon Sancho from the England team in the first two games. Less has been said of Saka, who was considered fortunate by some observers to even make the final squad at all.
“I have been training, waiting, looking and learning,” Saka said. “I have been waiting for my opportunity. It was only right that I gave my all on the pitch.”
One game later, there can be no questioning whether Saka is ahead of Sancho in the pecking order, or whether he deserves to be here. The 19-year-old is making a habit of evolving his game, raising his standards and proving his worth. This latest performance was simply a continuation of a theme that has defined his career so far.