Bukayo Saka was Gareth Southgate’s surprise for England’s final group match against the Czech Republic. They may have seen the Arsenal teenager as a useful player, useful for fun, but mostly here because of the experience, despite the goals in the warm-up match against Austria. His impressive performance at Wembley changed all that.
The gala was supposed to start with Jack Grealish before the start of the opening kick, and the Aston Villa captain justified his inclusion in the starting lineup with an assist for the only goal of the game. It was scored by Raheem Sterling. This is made possible by Saka’s ride under construction.
Once the teams were announced, the focus shifted to Jadon Sancho. He was once again left out despite the forced absence of Mason Maut, as well as Southgate’s decision to leave out Phil Foden given the threat of suspension following his booking against Scotland.
But when the match was in progress, Saka acted. Contributing to the goal was not an isolated incident, it was emblematic of a performance that challenged his age. The nineteen-year-old winger carried the ball at speed, but showed the strength and skill to protect it as well.
“We’re extremely impressed with Bukayo throughout the month,” Southgate said afterwards in an interview ITV about Saki’s portrayal of a man at a match. “We really like it with the ball and without it. Tonight his receiving under pressure was fantastic.”
His defensive work was most evident at the start of the second half when opponents sought an equalizer. Saka was there, helping support Kyle Walker at right-back. He was the one who took responsibility, clearing a dangerous cross from the other side.
It was this 4-2-3-1 formation that was more adventurous than England saw in the first two games, the one that was desperately needed after a lack of thrust against Scotland. But Southgate, aware of the challenges that follow, clearly remains wary of being too open.
Saki’s presence handles this in a way that Sancho might not. He has that experience as a defender. He is ready to return. Position-wise, it was the young man’s involvement, which is remarkable, that allowed Grealish to impress and Harry Kane to shine more than before.
Could Saka become an English problem solver? Since Mount is unlikely to play in the next game due to the restrictions placed on him to train with teammates, Southgate needs someone who can bring balance to the attack as well as the quality of the ball.
Saki’s flexibility could be the answer in the knockout phase. While he will be tempted to stick to the template from this game next time, the nature of the opposition is likely to encourage a change of approach – but Saka can adapt to that.
It’s easy to see how Walker could squeeze in and form the back three, while Saka acts as a right-back. Alternatively, Kieran Trippier’s recall could see Saka switch to the left. If he is going to be 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 again, he can make higher defensive demands if needed.
Such is tournament life, this strange world in which a player whose mere inclusion in the squad caused astonishment before the start, now finds himself taking on media duties after the match as the man of the match. Many conclude that he cannot be left out again.
Raheem Sterling entered these Euros with questions about form after entering and leaving the season at Manchester City and some critics who called for new, younger opportunities to take his place. He leaves the group stage with two winning goals in his own name and the status of indispensable for the last 16, no matter who England plays.
Perhaps in Gareth Southgate’s mind Sterling’s place had never really been suspicious. The striker is an experienced and reliable leader of the English manager, with 14 goals in the last 19 international clubs that emphasize his importance for this side. This is an exceptional fact and proof of his improvement as a player, considering his slow goal-scoring start on the international scene.
Against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic, England looked at the most dangerous when Sterling runs behind the opposition defense through the left channel. There was a lot of talk about service in Harry Kane, but now the key would be real service for Sterling.
England looked like their pattern was scored in the first half on Tuesday, while Luke Shaw and Jack Grealish effectively combined with Sterling on that side of the pitch and created Czech problems.
He almost scored in two minutes when Shaw passed the ball over the top for Sterling to lobby towards the far post. Sterling then showed his sense of finishing inside the penalty area 10 minutes later, when he timed his movements perfectly to meet Grealish’s elegant center.
As England found against Scotland, that space is not always to be exploited, but against a stronger opposition in the last 16 there are likely to be places to rush, with Southgate certainly planning ways for his side to punish France, Germany or Portugal for a counter-attack.
England are worried that Sterling’s two goals are the only time they hit the net in the group stage. Kane certainly doesn’t look like he’s going to add another Golden Boot to his collection at this tournament.
But Sterling managed to lighten the burden on his captain. Southgate has to make some important decisions about whether Shaw and Grealish will be at the beginning of XI next week or who else will form the creative unit. But there is no doubt that Sterling’s name will be on that list.
Steve Clarke enjoyed suffocating England at Wembley, optimism encouraged that here, at home, with this kinder format, they could seize the moment and finally reach the knockout stage.
Billy Gilmour’s absence due to the coronavirus – a shame he couldn’t stand up to the still-maestro Luka Modric – added to the appeal of a potential triumph in trouble and when Callum McGregor lined up to equalize to shake Glasgow – ‘No Scotland, no party! ‘shouted Hampden – he felt that fate might just be on their side.
But for the early hustle and bustle of John McGinn and Andy Robertson, rising to their chests, the Croatian midfield machine was knitting patterns around increasingly confused blue shirts. Scotland was declassified where it ultimately mattered, Modric provided a decisive moment with artistic momentum.
“Croatia has hardened in tournaments,” Clarke admitted afterwards, but despite the disappointment of coaches and players, there was also steel.
“We’ll make sure it doesn’t take 23 years until we go to the next tournament,” he said. “We are so hungry for the World Cup,” McGregor added. “We want this to be a start,” John McGinn said.
It can be, for what remains, a youthful crop that includes people like Gilmour, Nathan Patterson and David Turnbull. Coming to Euro 2020 after that penalty shootout was a major hurdle. The occasion was one to be cherished, even if the damage was done to the Czechs; “We felt the love of one nation,” Captain Andy Robertson said as tears flowed again.
It’s another famous story about what could have been, another night that wonders if it will ever be. But beneath the reopened scars, enough evidence to claim it won’t be another 23 years.
It took until the 83rd minute for the Czech Republic to score the first shot in the second half at Wembley, promoting some who suggest that Jaroslav Silhavy’s team is purposefully trying to finish second in Group D to ensure an easier passage through the knockouts.
Well, if that was the plan of the guests, it collapsed when Croatia moved above them to second place in the standings with a 3-1 win over Scotland, which means they will face second-placed players in Group E.
Meanwhile, the Czechs have to wait to reveal the identity of their last 16 opponents who slipped to third place in the group, with now facing a terrifying chance for either the Netherlands, Belgium or the Group E winner.
Explained: Why Southgate is cautious Is Grealish a starter now? |. | The foundation for future success in Scotland?
Alice Piper joins Rob Dorsett and Pete Smith to discuss England’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic over the Czech Republic at Wembley to finish at the top of Group D at Euro 2020. Jack Grealish finally gets a start for England – is he here to stay now ? Why is Gareth Southgate so wary of the Three Lions? Plus: praise to Bukayo Saki and Raheem Sterling.
The panel also covers all positions in England and talk points in the last 16, and discusses how Southgate will approach the knockout stage.
And after Scotland’s 3-1 defeat to Croatia at Hampden Park, Charles Paterson of Sky Sports News joins us to look back at their campaign and whether there are grounds for greater success in the future.