Bukayo Saka wasn’t even a consensus pick to make the squad for Euro 2020.
While most weren’t exactly dissatisfied to eventually see him in the squad, there was a general feeling that he was only there because squad sizes have been inflated this year and Mason Greenwood had to pull out through injury.
Just a few weeks later and the feeling has changed. Saka’s presence in the squad has been a blessing, and he simply has to retain his spot in the starting lineup for Sunday’s final against Italy.
By Gareth Southgate’s own admission, figuring out who to start on the wings has been tough. Raheem Sterling has been unplayable this summer and commands a spot on the left, but who starts on the right?
It was Phil Foden in the early stages of the tournament. Jadon Sancho has impressed in limited minutes. Jack Grealish is the nation’s sweetheart, and Marcus Rashford deserves minutes as well.
But Saka is rightly ahead of them all, and that’s because he offers something different.
The 19-year-old boasts the same tricky feet and eye for a goal that the aforementioned bunch all possess, but it’s Saka’s work rate which makes him a vital cog of this team (on top of his outstanding inflatable unicorn riding). He’s more than happy to charge back and put in the dirty work defensively, so much so that he’s even played as a left-back for Arsenal at times.
Against Italy, that’s vital. Most of the Azzurri’s attack comes down Saka’s side, where Lorenzo Insigne has been excellent and Leonardo Spinazzola was perhaps the player of the tournament before his cruel ACL injury.
In Spinazzola’s place, Emerson did an impressive job against Spain and looks ready to fill the void as Insigne’s partner-in-crime in a system which has completely overwhelmed other right-backs who have been left to deal with the duo on their own.
Zeki Celik was picked apart for Turkey. Switzerland’s Kevin Mbabu couldn’t handle it. Thomas Meunier didn’t have a great time before Spinazzola’s injury either.
It’s Emerson who is now on double-up duty. He goes forward and takes turns with Insigne to occupy the right-back. One gets marked, and because wingers are notoriously poor defenders, the other is free to tear into the vacant space behind.
Kyle Walker is a good defender but is as susceptible to a lapse in concentration as any other full-back on the planet. He’ll need help from his winger, and Saka is the perfect man for the job.
Saka just needs to keep Emerson busy and can leave the threat of Insigne to Walker, who has his work cut out for him just dealing with the Napoli man.
Italy’s left side is where their main threat comes from, but it can also be seen as a point of weakness. As most Chelsea fans will attest to, Emerson isn’t exactly known as an elite defender, and in a system which asks him to get forward so much, there will be a lot of gaps behind him.
On the counter, there’s a good chance Emerson might not be in the right place defensively, and Saka boasts the kind of stamina and movement needed to capitalise on that. He can create chances for Kane and Sterling – something he has proved already this summer.
We all know that the midfield battle will decide this game – Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella will try and pass England into oblivion – but Saka vs Emerson could be just as decisive.
Both will be tasked with impacting the game at both ends of the field, and the fate of the trophy could come down to which player does their job the best.