Bukayo Saka banishes penalty demons as redemption for England's saviour offers Gareth Southgate vindication

Bukayo Saka stepped up to the penalty spot and cooly converted in the shootout (REUTERS)
Bukayo Saka stepped up to the penalty spot and cooly converted in the shootout (REUTERS)

It has been posited during this European Championship that life might be a bit easier for Gareth Southgate if he did not have such good players. If he managed a team, as with his early England, he could mould into more than the sum of its parts. Like Switzerland, perhaps.

But whatever burden of expectation they have teed-up, and whatever headaches his frighteningly talented, but underperforming crop of attackers have given him this summer, oh how England’s manager must be thankful for them now.

For Jude Bellingham in Gelsenkirchen, read Bukayo Saka in Dusseldorf, golden boy replaced by the star equivalent as saviour and elongater of the Southgate regime.

It was not quite so late, not quite so dramatic, nor even quite so brilliant, but still plenty enough of all three, the Arsenal forward’s stunning equaliser saving England from elimination by the Swiss ten minutes from the end of normal time.

And so then, inevitably, it was penalties, the occasion of Southgate’s landmark 100th game as England manager to be decided the same way as the most infamous of his 57 in the playing ranks.

Except the demons here were not his to banish. That had been done, on a warm night in Moscow six years ago. Instead, they were Saka’s, the man who missed the last penalty in the final of the last Euros while still a boy, and the only surviving taker of that shootout even on the pitch at the start of this one, after Harry Kane had been withdrawn in extra-time.

Bukayo Saka’s superb equalised dragged England into extra time (REUTERS)
Bukayo Saka’s superb equalised dragged England into extra time (REUTERS)

With the same defiance and bravery as in the grim aftermath of that cruel day three summers ago, here, the 22-year-old stood tall, as did Cole Palmer, Bellingham, Ivan Toney and Trent Alexander-Arnold, each of them faultless from the spot in a 5-3 triumph that sends England into the last-four.

For Southgate, it is now three quarter-final victories at major tournaments, the same number as every one of his predecessors combined. And as in the chaotic, fortuitous late win over Slovakia, a night that for a long while appeared destined to be his last in post ended with vindication in strange form.

Then, keeping a clearly knackered Kane and Bellingham on the pitch had reaped surprising reward. Here, it was the decision not to drag Saka away from his preferred right wing, his goal arriving with a trademark dart inside from that flank, after rhyme, reason and the entire country had reluctantly agreed his left-footedness was needed on the left.

Southgate’s decision to switch to a back-three had been a dreadfully kept secret all week, Phil Foden delivering final confirmation in his pre-match interview even as the manager himself kept up pretence of holding cards close to chest.

The assumption, though, was that Saka would be a sacrificial lamb of sorts, not culled from the lineup entirely but asked to do a job he had long left behind at left-wing-back, the role that offered a way into Arsenal’s first-team in his teens.

You can imagine, then, the collective shock when instead Kieran Trippier slid back towards the region from which most of the nation seemed to wish he had been barred.

In hindsight, we should not have been so easily duped. Southgate arrived at this European Championship with the Premier League’s best player in Phil Foden, fresh off the best season of his career, spent largely causing havoc off the Manchester City right. He had, as a disjointed attack failed to fire through the group stage, the Premier League’s top English goalscorer, Cole Palmer, as an option for the same role. And yet, Bukayo, it was always you.

Where others have struggled to convert club numbers into international spoils, Saka has, since his mid-tournament breakthrough at the last Euros, been Southgate’s most reliable attacker beyond Kane. His twelfth England goal was by some margin his most crucial and best, struck from just outside the corner of the box through the bodies, low and in via the far post.

Whether the system that had him effectively employed as a one-man right-side should stick is a matter to be debated between now and Wednesday’s semi-final, against either Turkey or the Dutch. England were better, more controlling in the first-half, if still a little blunt. Thereafter, Switzerland were on top, Breel Embolo scoring a goal a long time coming after Southgate had once again waited too long to freshen things up.

From that moment, as a flurry of forwards came on, any semblance of a system went up in smoke. Crucially, though, Saka stayed right, where he had to be.

If Southgate, in his divisive latter-era, is no longer the nation’s great unifying force, then as players go Saka comes close, his popularity, at least when wearing an England shirt, bridging even the more partisan splits.

Which is why, even armed with a perfect penalty record at Arsenal this season, when he stepped up to take England’s third spot-kick, you felt a particularly sharp intake of breath, special fear that this stupid, unfair sport might take another cruel twist.

Saka’s pain three years ago had been the nation’s, too. Sharing in his redemption felt good.