EPL TALK: So long Sterling, it's Saka's time now for England
Arsenal stalwart's is bending games to his will, and is surely the name Gareth Southgate picks over Chelsea forward from now on
BUKAYO Saka’s Arsenal game has become his England game. The two are interchangeable. He plays. He leads. All roads lead to the right wing, to the definitive hunter-gatherer. Only Saka does it the other way round. He gathers, hunts and kills.
Saka now plays for his country as he does for his club, like the kid in the playground, but not the clichéd one, the one with the permanent grin and the giddiness, just happy to be knocking a ball around (though Saka shares that joy). He’s the brute who’s simply bigger than anyone else; the stronger, faster, tougher one.
Against Ukraine, Saka looked like the only one who’d gone through puberty, a supreme physical specimen wondering why everyone else still had scrawny limbs and squeaky voices. And like self-conscious, insecure kids, the Ukrainians tried to kick him. He brushed them off so easily, it was a struggle not to laugh in their horrified, prepubescent faces.
Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate may boast an embarrassment of riches in all attacking positions – and he’ll be left embarrassed if he doesn’t maximise his wealth at Euro 2024 – but there’s no debate on the right wing. Not anymore. Thanks for your loyal service, Raheem Sterling, but Saka will take it from here.
Sterling was blessed with the gift of versatility, capable of cutting inside from either flank. Of course, such a gift is a curse at Chelsea, where it’s only a matter of time before Graham Potter throws the disoriented Sterling a pair of goalkeeping gloves. But Saka has no such identity crisis. The right wing belongs to him. Good luck trying to get the ball off him, let alone the position.
Watching the 21-year-old strip away the dignity of any Ukrainian foolish enough to attempt an interception was a chance to witness the game in its most distilled form. Pundits and columnists alike must fill space with lyrical analysis about why Ukraine failed to clamp England’s man of the match, but Saka dismantles the smoke and mirrors with every foray towards the penalty box.
Opponents try to mark him, or maim him, whatever works. But nothing does. One of the most fouled players in the English Premier League doesn’t play for clever free-kicks, like Jack Grealish, he plays for keeps. He stays upright. He rides tackles. He’s a bull in a china shop, but only if the shop is filled with folks throwing the china at him. He takes the hits and continues to charge.
Saka is a remarkable prospect for England and perhaps a unique one. Sterling had quick feet. Grealish comes with a box of tricks. And James Maddison has those reliable deliveries. But Saka has the lot, plus the physicality, plus the elegance to curl a magnificent strike into the top corner against Ukraine, plus the mental strength to overcome the ugly stuff.
Ah, the ugly stuff. Memories are always wilfully short in football, particularly in English football and especially if the Three Lions are involved. It may seem a lifetime ago now, but Saka was receiving physical threats and racist abuse less than two years ago, after missing a penalty in the Euro 2020 Final.
Overcoming racial abuse after Euro 2020 final
Remember the Euro 2020 Final? The one where middle-aged, cocaine-fuelled men were either shoving flares up the backsides, or breaking into Wembley Stadium, or racially abusing Saka, or proving that the missing link between human forms still exists. In the middle of the pandemic, it was the darkest of times, conveniently glossed over now, but the period has shaped Saka into something more, something greater.
First, he somehow overcame relentless, nationwide abuse at an age when most of us are deciding what courses to take at the local polytechnic. And second, his startling metamorphosis took place during the pandemic, for the most part. COVID-19 essentially covered Saka’s growth from 18 to 21. It’s not that his rise was overlooked, but attention was mostly focused elsewhere. He was largely spared the irritating, jingoistic hysteria.
There’s nowhere to hide now, but his experience means he doesn’t need to. He faced Ukraine at the age of 21 years and 202 days. He left the pitch with his eighth England goal. Only Dixie Dean (16), Jimmy Greaves (16), Wayne Rooney (12) and Michael Owen (10) had scored more at the same age. Only Saka is not a striker.
It gets better. The winger has produced 10 goal involvements (seven goals, three assists) in his past 16 appearances for the Three Lions. His assist for Kane’s finish involved a staggering, one-two pass over a long distance. The final curled pass took the breath away. Rooney could’ve done it, but not Dean, Greaves or Owen. Saka is destined for a league of his own.
For Arsenal, he’s up to 12 goals and 10 assists in the English Premier League, putting him in the top 10 for both (he’s second in the assists chart, just behind Kevin de Bruyne).
Defenders are running out of ideas. Drive Saka towards the corner flag and he’ll stick one on Kane’s boot. Show him inside and he’ll find the top corner. His game is rudimentary in the way that Roger Federer’s one-handed backhand was rudimentary. Everyone recognises the body shape. Everyone knows where the ball is going. Now try and get it. A game looks simple only when it’s flawless.
And like Federer, Saka is taking his simplicity to the highest levels. What’s he been doing for Arsenal all season, he’s now replicating in an England jersey, regularly, almost effortlessly. After the game, Southgate spoke of his winger’s “real belief” in front of goal. Saka expects to score as a matter of routine.
More impressively still, Saka’s confidence is contagious. Jordan Henderson joined Liverpool when Saka was in primary school, but the veteran was a changed man against Ukraine. Playing behind the irrepressible winger, Henderson appeared revitalised. Saka is elevating the performances of those around him. Never mind pundit-speak about being the first name on the team sheet. He’s the first player his team-mates look for on the pitch.
Saka is now bending games to his will, for club and country, some six months before his 22nd birthday. He already owns England’s right wing. The Premier League title should be next.
Saka is elevating the performances of those around him. Never mind pundit-speak about being the first name on the team sheet. He’s the first player his team-mates look for on the pitch.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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