England’s intelligent schemer Bukayo Saka is becoming a talisman

Bukayo Saka celebrates with England captain Harry Kane (The FA via Getty Images)
Bukayo Saka celebrates with England captain Harry Kane (The FA via Getty Images)

Wembley brought the lowest moment of Bukayo Saka’s career but Wembley has also witnessed further proof has displayed the strength of character and talent to respond to his Euro 2020 penalty miss. A three-minute double of an assist and a goal put England on the fast track to Euro 2024, just as Saka’s own journey to redemption has been swift. As Arsenal can testify, he has a capacity to be the difference maker and an ability to elevate games with a lovely left foot and his footballing intelligence. It seems equally useful in the international game.

After three goals in the World Cup, Saka’s second in the national stadium for the national team completed a salvo to see off Ukraine. He had been supplier before he was scorer and it was entirely unsurprising who broke the deadlock. Harry Kane’s record of 54 goals for England lasted for three days, before he extended it to 55. He was presented with a golden boot beforehand to mark his achievement in overhauling Wayne Rooney’s tally; his daughters were mascots and it was entirely typical that Kane marked the occasion with a goal. There can be a routine feel to his exploits but, on a day when England were without Marcus Rashford, Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden, they needed someone to step up.

Men from either half of north London did. If Kane has long since been a talisman, Saka is coming to assume a similar status. Well organised and diligent, Ukraine had survived for 36 minutes with few alarms. Then Tottenham and Arsenal teamed up profitably. It was a particularly long-distance one-two. Kane’s playmaking skills were apparent as he spread play with a diagonal ball to Saka. He whipped in a cross and Kane, arriving in the box, supplied the volleyed finish with his left knee. It was scarcely an elegant finish but records are not secured by elegance alone.

His goal was greeted with a louder cheer than Kane’s; perhaps because it was more spectacular, perhaps because of the affection the endearing Saka he generates. He collected Jordan Henderson’s pass, span and curled in an exquisite shot in from 20 yards. It was his eighth goal for England and if this might have been Saka’s best so far, he may well improve upon it again.

But it was not just about the quality but the quantity: eight goals is a fine return for a 21-year-old winger. Indeed, it is as many as Alan Ball and Glenn Hoddle mustered in their entire international careers, though, at 21, Ball was arguably the outstanding player in a World Cup final.

Saka, meanwhile, had to settle for getting the better of Ukraine. Ruslan Malinovskyi was booked for tugging him back. James Maddison almost sent him scurrying in on goal. The Leicester man’s belated first start for England came more than three years after his debut and at the expense of his close friend Jack Grealish. Without playing badly, and while showing some of his swagger, he was upstaged by the other two members of the front three. It was a lopsided shape, with Maddison operating infield and Saka adopting a wider role as many an attack was focused on the right side. Gareth Southgate had also brought Henderson into the team, and the Liverpool captain lent some of the urgency. Southgate gave Ivan Toney a debut in the last few minutes, making him the first Brentford player to represent England since 1939.

A historic feat came amid a lack of drama after the break, though another substitute, Conor Gallagher, almost added a third goal. It has been a hugely impressive start to England’s qualifying campaign, but the result to remember came in Italy on Thursday. Then a two-goal lead at half-time felt a statement of intent; here, rather less so. Then it was the prelude to rather more dramatic second half, required to secure a momentous win. On this occasion, relatively little happened after the break. John Stones was excellent again, but he was put under less pressure.

And yet it is hard to fault the visitors for that. Their previous meeting had been England’s emphatic 4-0 win in the Euro 2020 quarter-final; it was a very different time for Ukraine. Now it feels as though reaching Euro 2024 will be an achievement in itself, and not just because they were drawn in a group with the two finalists from the previous tournament.

They are under a caretaker manager, in Ruslan Rotan. Their presence was applauded because it reflects a quest to maintain something more important. Ukraine’s players entered the field swathed in their flags. They were watched by a number of refugees and their families, with a corner of Wembley a sea of blue and yellow. They were bouncing, football bringing a buoyancy to the supporters. Ukraine have now played in Scotland, Wales and now England since they were last able to represent their country in their homeland. But in London, they lost to goals from two Londoners.