Bukayo Saka proved why he must start for England at the World Cup

It was a dead rubber of sorts, but the situation was dire for Gareth Southgate’s England. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz had just combined in a manner which they rarely did for Chelsea as the latter curled home from distance to double Germany’s lead.

Defeat on Monday night probably wouldn’t have cost Southgate his job ahead of the winter World Cup in Qatar, but there was a feeling of Steve McLaren vs Croatia in 2007 as the boos started to ring out under the Wembley arch.

But then, a glimmer of hope. A wing-back-to-wing-back combination vindicated the manager’s decision to retain a back three/five as Luke Shaw finished at the back post from a Reece James cross. At that moment, the hazy image of Shaw opening the scoring in the Euro 2020 final re-entered the universal consciousness of England supporters.

The out-of-sorts United left-back had just scored England’s second goal of their dismal Nations League campaign and their first from open play in about a decade. Suddenly, the stage was set for a frenetic period of football.

Bukayo Saka must start for England at the World Cup

Bukayo Saka teed up fellow substitute Mason Mount for England’s equaliser against Germany. (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

England’s dire scoring record continued last Friday in the 1-0 defeat to Italy. Bukayo Saka, who was crowned the Three Lions’ Player of the Year hours before kick-off in Milan, was subject to a left wing-back role in Southgate’s disjointed 3-4-3.

Arsenal’s starboy proved during the formative stages of his senior career that he’s more than capable of performing a more defensive function, but he was doomed to fail at San Siro. His performance was no worse than his uninspired teammates, yet it was he who was dropped for Monday’s contest against Germany.

Phil Foden continued in the front three but had little to no impact during his 66-minute stay on the Wembley turf. Unlike Saka, the Manchester City star has rarely performed for the national team, and the Arsenal man was granted 24 minutes to prove why he deserves to start over Foden when England take on IR Iran in Doha on 21 November.

Saka’s task was made harder by Havertz’s majestic strike barely a minute after he entered proceedings, but he quickly went about asserting himself on the contest after Shaw had halved England’s deficit. His impact was immediate.

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Receiving possession on the half-turn, Saka mitigated Serge Gnabry’s challenge from behind with aplomb before he wrong-footed Nico Schlotterbeck with a swift change of direction and efficiently found Mason Mount on the edge of the Germany box. The Chelsea midfielder’s strike was excellent, catching Marc Andre ter Stegen off guard, and, in the blink of an eye, a destitute England were level. Skinner and Baddiel had suddenly returned to the Spotify playlists of millions.

There were several brilliant performers on the night, Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice were particularly great after England went 2-0 behind, while Harry Kane, who’d complete the comeback with a thumping penalty, produced some lovely moments in transition. However, it was Saka – along with Mount – who added another dimension to the Three Lions’ often stodgy possession play and facilitated a thrilling turnaround.

The Arsenal winger brought an energy that was previously absent from Southgate’s side and he was able to affect the bout in ways which Foden couldn’t. Pep Guardiola has evolved Foden into a special footballer, but Saka’s majesty is more fitting for this England side.

The 21-year-old has already starred for his country at a major tournament, and Monday night was a fitting reminder of what Saka brings to Southgate’s front three.

A Nick Pope error allowed Germany to equalise late on, but the result felt inconsequential. It’s been a pretty rough journey for the Euro 2020 finalists heading into the World Cup, but this second-half display would’ve emboldened many and restored some optimism within an innately pessimistic footballing nation.

England are talented enough to enjoy a deep run in Qatar, but Southgate’s loyalty to certain individuals is inhibiting the Three Lions and capping their ceiling. Fortunately, Saka is one of the players in the manager’s good books and he showed against Germany why he must start ahead of Foden for their group opener in less than two months’ time.