Bukayo Saka made his full England international debut in the 3-0 victory against Ryan Giggs’ Wales side. The teenager’s meteoric rise to superstardom continues and he did his future prospects no harm at all in an assured, if reserved, performance.
Saka was not really given license to wreak as much damage as he does in his familiar red and white jersey, and under the tutelage and direction of Mikel Arteta. The side Saka was selected in was a formative one from England boss Gareth Southgate. One that had another two players making their first and second appearances – Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Connor Coady at the back. It was also bereft of the players who had been punished for indiscretions while on international duty – Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Mason Greenwood, Tammy Abraham and Ben Chilwell. Some would say that the players who were on the pitch against Wales deserved to be as they followed the rules laid down. Some would say this weakened the team, but none can say that Bukayo Saka didn’t warrant his international recognition.
The trouble is, will Saka be hampered by his tactical flexibility? Saka is a very mature player both on and off the pitch it seems so far. The same can be said for his Arsenal and England compatriot, Ainsley Maitland-Niles. And both are adaptable in terms of their strengths – but what is their best position?
For Maitland-Niles, he is far more effective in a midfield three – as shown by his titanic performances against both Manchester City and Chelsea in last season’s FA Cup run. He made his presence felt in the centre and also used his freedom to stretch his opponents with darting runs down the flank. But his ability to do a fantastic job at full-back may well see him pigeon-holed in that role.
Saka’s assists last season were damn impressive. Those numbers stem from his ability to beat a man and cut in or race to the byline to cut it back. Saka thrives on confrontation in terms of his opponents. His dexterity and ball skills are the reason why he can bamboozle his markers, but he broke through the Arsenal team by playing full-back – something he does very well. Of course, when playing in our wing-back system it gives Saka license to bolt forward more – but Saka and Maitland-Niles’ international prospects will be hindered if they don’t manage to hold down a more advanced position.
England have Ben Chilwell, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Aaron Wan-Bissaka for those positions, so it is hotly contested. While if AMN continues to shine at CM, he only has to oust the likes of Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice and Harry Winks.
For Saka, in the wide positions are Rashford (occasionally), Hudson-Odoi, Jack Grealish perhaps, or maybe Raheem Sterling. Far less competition.
For their careers, Saka and AMN need to begin forging a positional path, one that holds down a spot. It may benefit Arsenal to have them as adaptable as possible, but for the players, they may suffer in the longer term.