The exclusion of Bukayo Saka from Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad has not garnered sufficient attention, owing to the fiasco surrounding Harry Maguire and his exploits in Mykonos.
Having been found guilty of repeated bodily harm, Maguire was subsequently withdrawn only four hours after the original squad announcement.
In an utterly baffling decision, one name is a glaring absence from the 23-man squad: that of Bukayo Saka.
Saka enjoyed a breakout season in 2019/20 for the Gunners in what proved a turbulent and tumultuous campaign for the club. Finishing with 12 assists across all competitions, the
18-year-old firmly established himself as one of the Premier League’s future stars.
His rise to prominence was deservedly rewarded with a new four-year contract in July, as well as change of shirt number from 77 to 7, one that Arsenal traditionally reserved for academy graduates who excelled in the first team. What made Saka’s performances all the more impressive were that they came from all over the pitch. Under Mikel Arteta, Saka has played at left-back, left and right winger and even appeared in central midfield.
This brings us to Southgate’s squad selection and his curious decision to select no recognised left-back. If the Three Lions boss wanted someone who is familiar in that role, he would have called up Luke Shaw or Ben Chilwell. Their absences are a sign that Southgate is willing to experiment with his formation and personnel for the upcoming UEFA Nations League games against Iceland and Denmark.
Why then, was a player as versatile as Saka, left out of the picture?
Arsenal’s Hale End graduate has played as a full-back in both three and four-man systems at club level, possessing the required footballing IQ to interchange positions with a knowledge that belies his youth. His understanding of how his role in the England side would alter depending on Southgate’s preferred formation makes Saka the ideal starter on the left-hand side of defence.
When asked about Saka’s absence, Southgate replied that he “was watching him very closely”. This is undoubtedly true but perhaps the best way to judge a young player’s suitability for international football is to throw him into the firing line and see if he is able to perform under pressure.
Southgate, who is an exceptional judge of a player’s character, would have been able to gauge the Arsenal youngster’s readiness to make the step up far more accurately by spending time with the player in person than through the feedback of assistants and contacts elsewhere. Saka would have also benefitted individually from the opportunity to experience the senior setup. He is yet to be officially capped by England after featuring for their age-group teams from U16 up to U19 level.
Southgate and his staff may not have wanted to rush Saka into the England team after such an eventful season for the Arsenal starlet. However, the inclusion of other players who excelled at club level last season such as Mason Greenwood, Kalvin Phillips and Phil Foden makes the exclusion of Saka a perplexing one.