I was fascinated to pop in and out of lively social media debates on Monday, among the Arsenal supporters inspired by James Benge’s Football.London piece on Bakayo Saka’s possible inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the Euros this summer. It seems that the Arsenal’s youngster’s form as a stand-in left back for his club, has not only caused media speculation linking Liverpool and Man United to supposed summer moves for Saka, but also an upsurge in punts on him making the Three Lion squad for June.
The response from Gooners was entertaining and heavily mixed to say the least. For many it was almost outrage that there should even be speculation that Saka should be considered left back cover for Ben Chilwell, ahead of more established regular fullbacks such as Rose or Shaw, when he is a self-acclaimed winger. Others were quick to point out that apparently Saka had in fact been a left back as a younger academy player and had latterly converted to a winger. I guess the third, more considered response was that if 15% of those placing a bet online are taking a punt on Saka, they, like me, are thinking ‘utility’.
I think we have all seen this season that Saka has played well at left wing in a 4231 and 433, under 2 managers, left wing-back in a 3421 and most recently a left back for Arteta in his fluid 4231. In the most recent role, his coach has given him huge creative licence when Arsenal have attacked and Xhaka has covered superbly when necessary. Consequently, football punters, Arsenal fans or not, have witnessed the youngster’s versatility and one must assume Gareth Southgate will have seen it too.
At my age I could look back to the World Cup 1986 in Mexico when Bobby Robson took Spurs player Gary Stevens, as he could play as a fullback, in central defence or at the base of the midfield. Of course, Southgate himself whilst primarily known as a central defender was very adept as a defensive midfielder.
Owen Hargreaves was primarily a central midfielder, but he filled in for Gary Nevillle at right back and one of the finest examples of a genuine utility international, and still doing it for the best team in the country with aplomb, is James Milner. In recent times under this very manager we have seen Phil Jones used at fullback, centre back and in midfield and Eric Dier has also played in all three roles for England, under Southgate’s tenure.
In the last World Cup this coach took England to the Semi Final stage, playing an accomplished speedy full back, Kyle Walker, as a right-sided centre back in a three, a position he has played on less occasions for his club than Saka has played left back for Arsenal. He also played an aging right footed winger, once an assist king for Villa and Man United in that position, as a left wingback. A decision that has ultimately led to a swansong for Ashley Young in Italy that might earn him another topflight title, eight years after his last one.
In short, it is not unusual when international managers or coaches narrow down their squads to the 20 outfield players, ahead of the tournament, for the odd specialist or two to miss out in favour of versatile alternatives who can cover more than one position on the pitch well. Indeed, returning to the example above, Ryan Bertrand who had played most of the qualifiers, ahead of the 2018 World Cup, was the specialist who missed out, to ostensibly Danny Rose, but ultimately Ashley Young.
It is for this reason most pundits anticipate our old chum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain getting the nod for the summer over perhaps one specialist central midfielder and a wide attacker. Chamberlain predominantly being used as the most attacking of three central midfielders for Liverpool this season, but in Mane’s absence of late, Klopp has been happy to utilise him as one of the wide strikers in his front three. A utility player of such high quality is invaluable and increases a coach’s flexibility and options in selecting the final squad.
So, whilst many might see Saka’s inclusion as unlikely, given his age and inexperience, let me just remind you that Southgate gave Callum Hudson-Odoi his full England debut before his first Premier League start for Chelsea. This England manager is singularly unafraid of trusting young talent and he has shown so on multiple occasions. Yes, he may well consider Brandon Williams, an equally exciting prospect, as his cover left back, as Chilwell is undoubtedly his starter. However, that option just gives him an alternative left back, whereas Bukayo Saka, gives him cover anywhere on the left-hand side.
A final factor is the worrying fact that until Saka does play competitively for England, he can still be nabbed by Nigeria, something the player himself has previously admitted he has had on his mind. You can bet that Southgate and his staff are aware of this fact and I simply cannot believe this has not been discussed. The Three Lions will not want another Zaha situation on their hands.
So perhaps a small punt on our exciting homegrown lad is not so outlandish. Stranger things have happened and football is after all, a funny old gamefunny old game!