Saka confirms status as England’s greatest hope for taking the next step

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

With 40 minutes gone at Wembley Stadium Bukayo Saka took the ball in the inside left channel, bumped away the yellow shirt at his back and produced that familiar whip‑crack turn, one of those moments where he just seems to have a weirdly preternatural grasp of the physics of movement, snaking off into spaces that aren’t, technically, supposed to be there. Perhaps this is one reason why he gets kicked a lot. There is no logical answer to this problem.

Saka had time to think about what to do next, a micro-second of processing time. The finish was ridiculous. Not novel or unorthodox: the left-foot shot curled across goal, starting outside the line of the post, hips opened out to make the angle. We know that angle. It’s drill, a set move.

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This was just a little different, the ball curving straight from Saka’s foot and continuing in a cool, smooth parabola – not swaz or swing or dip, but a section of a perfect circle, like something drawn with an architect’s compass.

It travelled slowly, a lovely orangey-white orb, hanging there in the sallow evening air as necks were craned, with time to relish the moment of stillness before the ball rustled the netting and the stands erupted, lost in their own noise for perhaps the only time all afternoon.

England were already 1-0 up by that stage, courtesy of another moment from Saka three minutes earlier, the opening act in a short but sustained passage of incision that sat this game down like a Vulcan death grip.

Ukraine had doubled up doggedly against Saka from the opening minutes. The plan was clear. Force him inside on to his (hang on) left foot. Oh. Wait. With 37 minutes gone Saka duly went back on to that stronger side and zipped a perfect flat dipping cross to the far post. Harry Kane bundled it across the line to extend England’s all-time goalscoring record.

And in those three minutes Saka did a few useful things. Most obviously he saved an otherwise room‑temperature game. He saved England’s players from having to dig into their reserve energy stores in a Sunday game deep into the season’s spring slog.

Bukayo Saka attacks for England
Saka is by some distance England’s best creative attacker and crucial to their hopes of winning a tournament. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Mainly he confirmed what is already clear, that he is now by some distance England’s best creative attacker; and their greatest hope, along with Jude Bellingham, of continuing to improve in the next 14 months, and of looking, finally, like a genuine champion team. Aged 21 Saka has eight goals and seven assists for England in 26 caps. He has three assists and four goals in his past seven, three of which have been against France, Italy and Germany.

Otherwise this was more or less an exercise in keeping up appearances. Early on England were slow. The day was slow. Ukraine were slow. Even the paper planes skirling down from the stands seemed a little disinterested. Harry Maguire chugged about at Triffid speed. Bellingham carried the ball well and looked, as he always does, like a footballing aristocrat. James Maddison had a good game. He is basically made for this kind of occasion, a player who is all poise and head up passing, who has two speeds, strut and strut slightly faster.

Ukraine sat in a tightly meshed 4-2-3-1 and waited. With 29 minutes gone Saka was fouled for the third time, all of them out on the right side, and started to wind himself up for that moment of crisis. And for Ukraine of course this was more than simply a game of football.

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The anthem was one of the more heartfelt Wembley has heard in recent times. The blue and yellow shirts, the raised arms, the players gathered before kick-off behind a flag with the word “Peace” on it. It was all very moving. Although, let’s be honest, football also helped, in its own small way to smooth and enable the invasion of Ukraine. There is some guilt to be paid off here. Gianni Infantino stood next to Vladimir Putin and told the world how full of love his new best friend was. A World Cup helped to empower and strengthen the regime. All of us, from the media up, played our unwitting part in this. So football has no direct power over anything. But there is a sense of having stood in the wrong place, of having been played, goosed, made to sit up and beg by a warmongering despot. As the game at Wembley kicked off Russia were playing Iraq at the Gazprom Arena in Saint Petersburg. The normalising process is back on. But they did play Where is the Love by the Black Eyed Peas at half-time at Wembley, so there was that.

From here England won’t play again until the high summer double header. But by the end it felt as though progress had been made. There is a kind of parable in Southgate’s treatment of Saka. England can’t claim credit for his development. But Southgate’s treatment of his player has been touching and supportive while applying just the right amount of galvanising pressure. It feels now like one of the key relationships in this team; just as Saka himself is utterly vital to what can be achieved from here.