Saka is England’s unexpected star
Bukayo Saka was the surprise selection by Gareth Southgate for England’s final group game against Czech Republic. Perhaps the Arsenal teenager had been seen as a utility player, useful to have around but largely here for the experience despite scoring in the warm-up game against Austria. His impressive performance at Wembley has changed all that.
The clamour before kick-off had been for Jack Grealish to start and the Aston Villa captain justified his inclusion in the starting line-up with the assist for the only goal of the game. It was scored by Raheem Sterling. It was made possible by Saka’s driving run in the build-up.
The focus, once the teams had been announced, switched to Jadon Sancho. He was omitted once again despite the enforced absence of Mason Mount as well as Southgate’s decision to leave out Phil Foden given the threat of suspension following his booking against Scotland.
But once the match was under way, it was Saka who starred. The contribution for the goal was no isolated incident, it was emblematic of a performance that belied his age. The 19-year-old winger carried the ball at speed but showed strength and skill to protect it too.
“We have been super impressed with Bukayo throughout the whole month,” said Southgate afterwards when speaking to ITV about Saka’s man-of-the-match display. “We really like him with and without the ball. Tonight, his receiving under pressure was fantastic.”
His defensive work was most evident early in the second half as the opponents searched for an equaliser. Saka was there, helping support Kyle Walker in the right-back position. He was the one who took responsibility, clearing a dangerous cross from the other flank.
This was a 4-2-3-1 formation that was more adventurous than had been seen by England in their first two games, one that was much needed after the lack of thrust against Scotland. But Southgate, aware of the challenges ahead, clearly remains wary of being too open.
Saka’s presence solves that in a way that perhaps Sancho would not. He has that experience at full-back. He is willing to work back. Positionally savvy, it was the youngster’s inclusion, remarkably, that allowed Grealish to impress and Harry Kane to shine more than before.
Could Saka become England’s problem solver? With Mount unlikely to feature in the next game because of the restrictions placed on him training with his team-mates, Southgate needs someone who can bring balance to the attack as well as quality on the ball.
Saka’s flexibility might be the answer in the knockout stages. Although there will be a temptation to stick to the template from this game next time out, the nature of the opposition is likely to prompt a change of approach – but Saka can adapt to that.
It is easy to see how Walker might tuck inside to form a back three with Saka operating as a right wing-back. Alternatively, the recall of Kieran Trippier could see Saka switch to the left. If it is to be 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 again, he can handle greater defensive demands if needed.
Such is tournament life, this strange world where a player whose very inclusion in the line-up had caused consternation prior to kick-off now finds himself taking the post-match media duties as the man of the match. With many concluding he cannot be left out again.
Is Sterling now England’s key man?
Raheem Sterling came into these Euros with questions over his form after an in-and-out season at Manchester City and some critics calling for new, younger wide options to take his place. He leaves the group stage with two match-winning goals to his name and a must-pick status for the last-16, whoever England play.
Perhaps in Gareth Southgate’s mind Sterling’s place was never really in doubt. The forward is a tried and trusted leader for the England manager, with 14 goals in his last 19 internationals underlining his importance to this side. It’s a remarkable tally and testament to his improvement as a player, given his slow goal-scoring start on the international stage.
Against Croatia, Scotland, and Czech Republic England have looked at their most dangerous when Sterling is running behind opposition defences through the left channel. There has been a lot of talk about the service into Harry Kane but getting the service right for Sterling could be the key now.
England looked like they had the pattern nailed down in the first half on Tuesday, with Luke Shaw and Jack Grealish combining effectively with Sterling on that side of the pitch and causing Czech Republic repeated problems.
It almost brought a goal inside two minutes when Shaw lofted a pass over the top for Sterling to lob against the far post. Sterling then showed his knack of finishing from within the six-yard box 10 minutes later when he timed his movements perfectly to meet Grealish’s stylish centre.
As England found against Scotland, that space is not always there to be exploited but against stronger opposition in the last 16 there is likely to be room to run into, with Southgate surely plotting ways for his side to punish France, Germany or Portugal on the counter-attack.
It is a worry for England that Sterling’s two goals are the only time they’ve hit the net in the group phase. Kane certainly doesn’t look like he’ll be adding another Golden Boot to his collection at this tournament.
But Sterling has been able to lighten the load on his captain. Southgate has some important decisions to make around whether Shaw and Grealish will be in the starting XI next week or who else will make up the creative unit. But there’s no doubting Sterling’s name will be on that team sheet.
Shot-shy Czechs pay the price
It took until the 83rd minute for the Czech Republic to have their first shot in the second half at Wembley, promoting some to suggest Jaroslav Silhavy’s side were purposefully trying to finish runners up in Group D so as to ensure an easier passage through the knockouts.
Well, if that was the visitors’ plan, then it backfired when Croatia moved above them into second place in the standings with a 3-1 win over Scotland, meaning they will now face the runners up in Group E.
Meanwhile, the Czechs must wait to discover the identity of their last-16 opponent having slipped to third spot in the group.