Bucayo Saka was sent on the field to turn the possession into a penetration to create chances for an English team that scored just one goal in two European Championship games.
He did all this and more, but still came out short in one particular area. Rahim Stirling scored the only goal in England’s 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic on Tuesday, centering with a cross from Jack Gialish, who flew just over Saka’s own jumping head.
“It was a great cross from Jack and Rahim was there for the goal,” said the 19-year-old midfielder. “I’m almost there, but I’m just not tall enough.”
But he was good enough. Good enough to receive the UEFA Player of the Year award. And maybe even good enough to stay in the starting lineup when England play their next Euro 2020 match in the round of 16.
“He won that opportunity (to play) tonight and grabbed it,” said England coach Gareth Southgate.
England already knew they had reached the round of 16 before the match at Wembley Stadium, allowing Southgate to try something new with an attack that has created very little since the start of the tournament. The two new things were Saka and Grealish.
“The instructions were just to play, you know, to have fun, to play with freedom, to express yourself,” Saka said. “We’ve already qualified, there’s no pressure on us, just have fun there and that’s what I tried to do.”
Saka did for England what he had done all season for Arsenal, and it worked. Now Southgate will have to decide whether the teenager stays in the starting lineup, something that may depend on the team’s next opponent. As Group D winners, England will face World Cup champions France, defending champions Portugal, Germany or Hungary at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday in the next round.
“He (Southgate) said it’s one of my qualities, it’s what I’ve been doing all season at my club,” Saka said. “He just told me to play how I did at my club. Play confidently, play freely and express yourself and that’s what I did.”
This was Saka’s first start in a major international tournament and only his sixth appearance in England. But, remarkably, this was his second prize man in the match. The youngster, who grew up in nearby Ealing, won the second in his third participation in the national team – a 3-0 victory over Ireland in November.
“I am a local boy. “I’ve passed the stadium a million times,” Saka said. “It’s really special. This is amazing. I’ve played here before and I’ve had a man at the game before, but it was without the fans and without my family. So tonight to have my family and of course the English at the stadium was really special. This is a night I will never forget. “