After missing a penalty in the Euro 2020 Final defeat to Italy at Wembley Stadium and suffering disgraceful backlash and racial abuse, Bukayo Saka has bounced back like nothing happened and has reached superstar status at Arsenal. He has cemented his place in the Arsenal team as the starting right wing forward and has also been a regular for Gareth Southgate’s side during the World Cup qualifying rounds and the UEFA Nations League.
A study from FIFA showed that both Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford — two of the players who missed penalties in the Final alongside Jadon Sancho — were the most abused players at the Euros Final and 38% of the abuse came from the UK. Arsenal as a football club and manager Mikel Arteta deserve some praise on how they helped him during the trying period and the player himself deserves far more praise and commendation, showing how strong of a personality he is.
While Sancho and Rashford struggled to bounce back following the disappointment, Saka only improved. He has demonstrated maturity, a strong personality, and a monster mentality over the past two seasons, and would go on to be voted Arsenal Player of the 2021/2022 Season, receiving nominations for the Tuttosport Golden Boy and Kopa Trophy Awards, finishing in the top ten in both awards. He was also nominated in the IFFHS Men’s Youth (U-20) Team of 2021.
One of the things that will aid England’s progression in Qatar and mission to win the World Cup is how Gareth Southgate utilizes Saka in the team. First and foremost, Saka should be a starter in the team as he has earned the rights from his performances in Arsenal over the past two seasons.
Arsenal is currently seated at the top of the Premier League, five points ahead of Manchester City with Saka playing an important role in the process. He has scored in big games as well, having scored a brace against Liverpool and the important match-winner as well.
Saka is a versatile player who can play on the left wing and even the wing-back positions, but his most effective position on the pitch is the right wing position and that is where Southgate should play him. If Southgate will be picking his starting team based on current form, and not based on previous performances in the England shirt, then Saka should easily be starting on the right side.
Should he go with a 4-3-3 formation, we could see a deadly front three with Saka playing on the right, Harry Kane operating as a 9, Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford playing off the left with Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice composing the midfield trio. The problem is Southgate has not been known to be attack-minded in the past by fielding four attacking-minded players all at once, but time will tell on how he selects his team.
Foden has struggled at times when playing on the right for England and has even played more on the left than on the right for City. Southgate should not overcomplicate things and instead go with his most natural option in Saka playing on the right. An alternative would be Saka, Kane and Foden playing in attack with Mason Mount or James Maddison playing alongside Bellingham and Rice in midfield.
Southgate has also gone for the three-at-the-back system in the past, and a 3-5-2 formation could see Saka utilized as a right-sided or left-sided wingback. However, doing so would prevent Southgate from getting the most out of Saka’s unique skillset, and with Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker and Ben White as fullback options, there is little need to do so either.
At 21 years old, Bukayo Saka has emerged as a vital cog for the Premier League leaders, and as he enters his second major international tournament, he will be looking to lead the Three Lions to their first World Cup since 1966. If he can do so, he could end up becoming the second English player to win the Best Young Player in the World Cup after Michael Owen in 1998, where the 18-year-old forward took the tournament by storm — his famous run of going past Roberto Ayala in the Round of 16 fixture against Argentina remains one of the epic moments of the tournament’s history.
England are favored to advance out of their group of Iran, USA, and Wales, but after reaching the semifinals in 2018 and reaching the final in 2021, the bar has been set: anything but a World Cup trophy would be a disappointment for this talented English squad. However, Saka can take solace in the fact that, as opposed to Kane (29) or Sterling (27), he will be only entering his prime when the next World Cup rolls around in 2026.
By: Kayode Dave Ogunbameru / @DaveOgunbameru
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / @GabFoligno / David Price