Bukayo Saka’s dancing feet a reminder fearlessness is nothing to be afraid of
Since Bobby Moore held the Jules Rimet trophy aloft in the summer of 1966, playing for England has often been akin to stepping into a pit of quicksand; the longer you hang around, the more restricted you become as the pressure grows. On Tuesday, Bukayo Saka showed everyone that fearlessness is a virtue.
Repeatedly, it is the fresh faces among the England squad that give the nation hope, innocently skipping around the pit with flare and enthusiasm as the stalwarts remain cautiously rigid, fearful of sinking further into the sand.
A 23-year-old Paul Gascoigne dazzled at Italia ’90 under Bobby Robson, Michael Owen scored a wondergoal against Argentina at just 18 eight years later and, at the same age, Wayne Rooney blew everyone to pieces before his injury at Euro 2004.
Often these legends slowly sink into the quicksand. Terrified of making a misstep and essentially preventing themselves from reaching those same levels of brilliance.
Through his amiable character, candid nature with the press and iconic waistcoat, Gareth Southgate has created an environment in which the quicksand is no longer as real a threat to his immensely talented squad.
A 1-0 win against the Czech Republic on Tuesday night means the England boss can now prepare for a last-16 tie at Wembley, most likely against either France, Germany or Portugal. A daunting task. But with a crop of exciting attacking talent that would make any nation jealous, there is always a chance.
It was a night that saw Saka, Arsenal‘s sole representative in the national team, entrusted with a start against the Czechs, stepping in for Phil Foden. But a comment from Southgate in the preamble to the Wembley clash was plastered all over social media in the hours before kick-off.
Asked about the likelihood of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho being involved in the game, the manager replied: “We’ve got some explosive options and a lot of them are young players and experiencing a big tournament for the first time. So as a coaching staff we are realistic about our expectations of them as individuals.”
The assist king 𝗱𝗲𝗹𝗶𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘀… and #ENG lead! 👑
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 22, 2021
But as Saka dropped his shoulder and sped away from Jan Boril for what felt like the 10th time in the first half, a man he previously tormented when Arsenal met Slavia Prague in the Europa League, one could only hope that Southgate’s brand of realism would soon be toppled into the quicksand.
Just 12 minutes had elapsed when the 19-year-old made his mark. Despite starting on the right, Saka was given the license to roam and drop deep when needed, and he did so to great effect, turning and twisting away from the attentions of Tomas Soucek before scampering off into the distance, the West Ham midfielder left staring exasperated into the west London sky.
After carrying the ball for 30 yards, a neat one-two was played with Kalvin Phillips. Saka now found himself deep inside the Czech Republic penalty area after what was already the most progressive individual move made by an England player at the tournament.
But there was no panic and there was no fear. A rapid glance over his shoulder, another neat turn and a cross was lofted towards Jack Grealish with his weaker right foot. Some further interplay between Grealish and Harry Kane eventually saw the Aston Villa man dink an excellent ball to the back post, where Raheem Sterling arrived to gratefully nod home his second goal of the tournament.
Special to play and win this trophy with my family in the stadium tonight ❤️ Most importantly we got the three points and topped the group ! Now onto the knockout stages 👀 pic.twitter.com/bpy3cMyxVY
— Bukayo Saka (@BukayoSaka87) June 22, 2021
While his name will not stand next to the goal or the assist, it is a chance that would not have been created were it not for Saka’s fearlessness in possession and faith in his own ability.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s earned that chance tonight and he grabbed it. He was fabulous,” his manager said after the game. An indication that Saka may well retain his spot in the next round – and who would complain?
Southgate has worked miracles to alter the perception of England as a footballing entity. But now it is time to go a step further. When Gascoigne, Owen and Rooney were let off the leash, the results were iconic. Saka’s man-of-the-match performance reminded us that the fearlessness of youth should be weaponised, not feared.