It was little more than a quick burst through the centre of the park. The drop of a shoulder against a largely average Czech side - aside with two West Ham favourites and an oddly in-form Patrick Schick, of course. But it was enough to set the pulses racing. From that early moment in England’s third group game, it became clear that Bukayo Saka was now an England regular.
It’s crept up on all of us. Saka was a dark horse to even get into the England squad: now he's the crown prince of inflatable unicorns. In becoming a starter ahead of Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, he’s been rewarded for that most un-British thing possible: skipping the queue. And the nation is here for it.
There’s precedent for it. Ceefax announced Paul Gascoigne’s axeing from England’s 1998 squad like the abdication of a monarch - yet it paved a path for 18-year-old Michael Owen to tear through Argentinian barricades, a little how Gazza himself tore up Italia 90 in his youth. It was 18-year-old Wayne Rooney alongside Owen, in 2004, Emile Heskey watching enviously like the jilted ex. Theo Walcott - just 16 - played the role in 2006: perhaps, in hindsight, Sven Goran Eriksson had nothing to lose by letting him loose.
It’s a role that feels as English as opening a tin of Quality Street to find a sewing kit. Perhaps it’s our traditional lack of depth. Raheem Sterling has ascended to his place as a national treasure via the ‘hot young wildcard role’ he played in Brazil, in 2014; in 2018, it was Marcus Rashford. It’s a walk-on part now ingrained in our society’s DNA, perhaps stemming from an unfancied Geoff Hurst making the World Cup final XI over Jimmy Greaves.
Cheetah pace and unabashed confidence will get you a seat at the back of the plane. What keeps you in the team though has to be deeper, richer, than raw athleticism.
Bukayo Saka has always been more than an athlete. His close-control is god-given - like he’s attached a string around the ball. He has the composure to stop, suspend the game while he’s in possession and wait for the right pass. With every passing week, he seemingly downloads new software patches to his skillset. His development over two years has been scarcely believable.
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And it’s all because Saka has one elite attribute that sets him apart from everyone else. His decision-making is world-class.
That’s his thing - and it’s quite remarkable when you consider how 19 is the peak age for awful choices. While most of us were finding the one spirit we can never drink again, Saka’s finding Raheem Sterling behind a backline. Every time the Arsenal talisman receives the ball, he knows exactly what to do. He might not always execute it... but you can't fault the decision.
Saka sees a football pitch like a chessboard - and he’s here to take the king. He can calculate each move before he has the ball; he knows exactly which squares to step into. He’s fiercely intelligent - interviewers still fawn over his GCSE results - and it’s this innate understanding of space and time that’s enabled him to play left-back, left-wing, central midfield, right-wing… you can imagine taking him speaking conversational Spanish after one family holiday or using chopsticks after one trip to Wagamamas.
Bukayo Saka 👏 👏 @MicahRichards thinks he has to start the next game... agree?"The way Saka played today... he just can't be dropped!" 💫 Watch #Euro2020 highlights: https://t.co/Wj8Eg2cvjj#bbceuro2020 pic.twitter.com/3rLkLCqR3tJune 22, 2021
Usually, you drop teens into your team because your play is a little staccato. Youngsters like Rashford, Sterling, Walcott, Gazza, Owen, Rooney have all added that unexpected spark or speed. They can give you life; they can take it away. It’s like whacking an improvisational jazz musician slap bang in the centre of an orchestrator and getting everyone else to follow their lead.
But Saka’s different. A 19-year-old in the national team should be a marriage of brilliance and brashness. Saka isn't. He's shy, thoughtful and introverted. He recalls Dennis Bergkamp's creativity but bombs up and down a wing with the same gusto as Freddie Ljungerg. He talks about pride from his heart; he plays the game with nothing but iciness.
England have long needed that coolness. A nation that steps into every competition trying to out-passion everyone else, who usually buckle when a cool head is required from 12 yards.
Well, this rainswept island is a-changing. Yes, England still bleach their hair for the big occasion but they can keep the ball for six minutes in extra time, drawing an 'Ole' for each pass from the crowd, these days. Yes, they miss the decisive penalty but they’re first to the rebound. The wildcard kids we take to the Euros these days? They’re not your average kids. The English DNA is evolving.
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RICHARD JOLLY Can England become the new Germany at major tournaments?
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