A curious thing happened on Tuesday night. England played a European Championship game at Wembley and it was – and I had to look this word up, so apologies if the meaning isn’t quite right – enjoyable. People sang and cheered. The national stadium, so often a theatre of irritations, felt happy and alive. England shuffled diffidently – and not without a few alarms – into the round of 16. And on a night when Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire made their returns, England’s leader on the field was a 19-year-old from west London with five caps to his name.
Electrifying teenage attacker dances his way through a defence in a major tournament. We all think we’ve seen this film before, and if you listen closely you can probably already hear the weepy BBC montage at its end. But amid the complications and the paradoxes, the uncertain fates and futures, one fact at least felt clear enough. As “It’s coming home” rained down from the stands, the stage belonged to a man born just a 92 bus ride away from Wembley. Welcome – belatedly – to the summer of Bukayo Saka.
In theory, England’s performance here was at least unencumbered by the pressure of having to qualify. In reality, of course, the microwaved performance against Scotland had added its own layers of jeopardy and anxiety to this game, even before the late withdrawal of Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, sidelined after an illegal natter with their Covid-positive Chelsea teammate Billy Gilmour.
Chilwell’s incapacitation will probably not have unduly troubled Southgate, given that he appears to have been relegated to fourth-choice left-back behind Kieran Trippier, Luke Shaw and perhaps even the England manager himself. But the absence of Mount, such a livewire in the final third, with his ability to link midfield and attack with a bare minimum of touches, threatened to starve England’s front three of good, quick possession.
At which point, from stage right: enter Saka. Perhaps it was hardly surprising, in the circumstances, that England began like a team desperate to prove they had nothing to prove. Raheem Sterling hit the post with a delicate lob. Kyle Walker scampered impatiently up and down the right flank like a man looking for a lost contact lens. The People’s Republic of Jack Grealish more than justified his promotion, adding class and mystery, as well as providing the delicate cross for Sterling’s early goal.
But in fact, the move had been started half a minute earlier by Saka, driving thrillingly from deep in his own half. Tomas Soucek was taken out of the game with an outrageous body feint. It was the last time any Czech would get close to him. And by the time Sterling had put the ball in the net, the Wembley crowd had already shed its usual facade of irony, ennui and world-weary cynicism and begun compiling paeans to its new crown prince.
There are a few reasons why Saka feels as if he’s slipped under the radar a bit. First of all, his raw numbers are really nothing special. He has just five goals and three assists for Arsenal in the league this season. More often than not he’s the man who plays the pass before the pass, or in Arsenal’s case the pass before the pass before Nicolas Pépé puts the ball straight out for a goal-kick. So often this season Saka has felt like a sparkling player being tethered down by the dunderheads around him.
The other main reason is that for most of his professional career, nobody really seemed to know Saka’s best position. He made his England debut against Wales eight months ago as a left wing-back. (Oh, sorry Ben – fifth-choice.) At times Mikel Arteta has tried him in defence, on the wing, in the centre of midfield, on the left of midfield, behind the striker or occasionally even a daring hybrid of all of these. Saka’s versatility, his greatest asset, is also a curse.
Here, then, was an answer of sorts: don’t overthink it. Just let him play. And although ostensibly deputising for Phil Foden on the right wing, for the first hour Saka pretty much did what he wanted. He tiptoed up the touchline. He roamed speculatively in the No 10 role. He could retreat to receive the ball or lurk on the shoulder of the last man. Without the ball he could hold his position, step up to intercept, clear crosses at the back post.
Certainly the Czechs seemed to have few answers. By the middle of the first half, their left-back, Jan Boril, was responding to Saka’s advances by simply running in the opposite direction as fast as he could, furiously back-pedalling in mortal terror of actually having to engage.
It was at this point that you almost began to feel sorry for these seasoned international defenders. Please, Bukayo. That man has a wife and children at home. Be reasonable.
As the final minutes wound down, thoughts inevitably turned to the byzantine game of second-round permutations, one that will inevitably reanimate the debate over whether England were actually better off finishing second in the group and avoiding a likely clash against France, Portugal or Germany. Perhaps this point needs to be remade: any team that willingly runs scared from a home fixture in order to avoid a potentially stronger opponent is probably not a champion in the making. This is not a moment for prevarication or doubt. Now, more than ever, is the time to believe just a little.