Bukayo Saka has already proven why he is England's best player

Bukayo Saka has already proven why he is England's best player

There was something almost reassuringly familiar about the sight of Serbia's Strahinja Pavlovic taking out Bukayo Saka after 22 minutes of England's opening Euro 2024 group game on Sunday.

Saka had by then already made England's winning goal with a deflected cross for Jude Bellingham after racing away from Pavlovic and was giving Serbia's left-sided defender hell, turning him inside out again and again.

Anyone who has watched Arsenal knows Saka is frequently the target of rough treatment from struggling defenders, particularly after he has gone past them at least once, and in the circumstances Pavlovic arguably showed a degree of restraint by waiting so long to foul his tormentor.

Watching Saka run at Serbia, it was easy to forget that he came into the European Championship short of fitness, having struggled to train fully in the warm-up camp after ending the domestic season with a groin injury.

Torrid time:  Bukayo Saka tormented Serbian defender Strahinja Pavlovic during England's 1-0 win on Sunday (AP)
Torrid time: Bukayo Saka tormented Serbian defender Strahinja Pavlovic during England's 1-0 win on Sunday (AP)

There were, too, lingering concerns that the 22-year-old might be feeling the strain of a gruelling campaign in which he played 52 times for club and country, and was rarely afforded a breather by Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta.

Saka, though, looked refreshed in the first half in Gelsenkirchen before fading and being replaced for the final 15 minutes, as England clung on to a 1-0 win.

A fresh and fired-up Saka is positive news for England and, for all Gareth Southgate's depth in forward areas, the manager needs him at his best in Germany this summer.

Harry Kane may be England's goalscorer and statesman and Bellingham is increasingly their talisman and figurehead, but Ealing-born Saka has quietly been named England's player of the year for the past two seasons.

The award is decided by members of the England supporters' club, who have a good sense of who delivers for their country on a consistent basis.

Saka's cross for Bellingham against Serbia was his 27th goal involvement in 24 starts for England

A day out from England's second group game against Denmark in Frankfurt, no other member of Southgate's attack feels so assured in their role as Saka, including Bellingham and Kane — whose best positions are still the subject of debate.

Amid all the hand-wringing and chin-stroking about how to get the best from the pair, as well as Phil Foden and Trent Alexander-Arnold, there is not a peep about Saka.

Foden and Chelsea's Cole Palmer — the Premier League Player and Young Player of the Season, respectively — both prefer to play from the right, and yet there is no question that either could take Saka's place on the wing. West Ham winger Jarrod Bowen, who swapped in against Serbia, is likely to be his understudy in Germany.

Saka is universally accepted as England's best option down the right flank, and his consistent end product and directness are huge weapons for Southgate, particularly in a squad without Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.

When Saka isolates a defender, few forwards are as devastating and, as Pavlovic can testify, his ability to go both ways makes him a nightmare.

Saka's cross for Bellingham was his 27th goal involvement in 24 starts for England, illustrating his remarkable reliability at international level.

Foden, by contrast, has struggled to replicate his Manchester City form in an England shirt, while Palmer, Bowen, Anthony Gordon and Eberechi Eze are all inexperienced at this level.

Kane and Saka are the only members of Southgate's squad with more than four international goals and a history of being decisive at the business end of tournaments.

Saka made England's equaliser against tomorrow's opponents in the semi-final of Euro 2020 and scored in the World Cup last-16 win over Senegal 18 months ago.

He was widely regarded as England's best player in their eventual defeat to France in the quarter-final, winning their first penalty and giving Theo Hernandez, the French left-back, the Pavlović treatment throughout.

Saka also, though, suffered the agony of missing from the spot in England's penalty-shootout defeat to Italy in final of Euro 2020, leaving him with unfinished business in this competition.

Euro 2020 was Saka's breakthrough tournament for England but the way it ended might have impacted lesser characters. Instead he has responded by establishing himself as Arsenal's penalty taker and England's most consistent player, banishing the memory of his miss at Wembley.

Now Saka's aim is to help England move on from the Italy defeat and, if they are to go all the way this summer, he looks poised to have a leading role.