Gareth Southgate couldn’t help himself. The England manager’s smile flashed across his face faster than the words left his mouth. That’s the only effect Bukayo Saka has on you.
‘People find themselves doing what I just did, you start to smile,’ Southgate said. ‘Cause that’s what he’s bringing you, you know? You feel warm. You feel like a remarkable man who got into the Arsenal team at a time when they weren’t playing much — and very well. And now they’re pushing for the title — and he’s on the mend again.’
Saka will earn his 25th cap when England face Italy in European Championship qualifiers this week. And he will do so as part of one of the most in-form forward lines in world football.
It’s six goals and three assists for Saka since the World Cup. It’s 10 goals and an assist for Harry Kane. And 19 goals and six assists for Marcus Rashford since Qatar.
On this front, three Southgate signings as England manager will be hoping for European Championship silverware.
Gareth Southgate heaped praise on the form and personality of his in-form England attackers
He praised the qualities and mentality of Bukayo Saka (L) to bounce back from Euro 2020 heartache
However, during his stint, Southgate had to embrace all three. Big mistake at the biggest moment on the biggest stage. For Saka and Rashford, penalties were missed in the Euros final shootout against Tuesday’s opponents Italy. A torrent of racist abuse followed. Then Kane, in December, fired his second penalty of the night over the bar as England crashed to France in the World Cup.
All three came back stronger, refusing to be grounded by the weight of failure or what might have been. Southgate knows better than anyone how many England icons have suffered that over the years. ‘Bukayo recovered from the obvious setback with us, he has the warmth of the fans with him who can see what he’s about, can see the genuine nature of his personality,’ said Southgate.
‘The key for us in the last two tournaments has been there [racist] pouring towards Bukayo, Marcus and Jadon (Sancho, who also missed the shootout against Italy) in the initial result but then that water falls and it’s very important – because I think if the players don’t feel the heat that is, they can always worry about what might happen in England, as some of us in the past have realized!
‘You don’t want an environment where people are reluctant to be all-in. Feeling that love, Bukayo was voted player of the year and he was able to turn it around very quickly, and this Harry Kane tournament Harry Kane felt it too — and it’s important to us as a group, it’s part of inhibitions we have to overcome as a team and we have to continue our work on the field. But when you feel the support of the country, it gives you a better chance to win.
‘To be a successful sportsperson, you need to have resilience. You will lose battles, you will have periods of bad form, you will have setbacks.
‘But the best come in those times and they show strength of character and they have an insatiable desire to be better and win. We have to light that fire but, at the end of the day, the players deserve to come back to things like that because whatever conversation or support you put around them, ultimately they deliver that. Their desire every morning to get up and train and put themselves in the right place and dedicate their career to getting it right — that’s the little bit that makes the difference.’
Saka came back from Euro and never looked back. He scored 12 goals the following season. For Rashford, however, it took longer. His call-up to the World Cup squad was his first since the Euros. He struggled under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick at Manchester United. Southgate played down the idea that Rashford’s off-field pressures, such as taking on the Government over school meals, had affected his form.
‘You can see the happiness,’ said Southgate. ‘The way he finishes, you see him move into opportunities now and expect him to score. For a time, that was not the case. You will see the confidence.
‘He benefits from the atmosphere at the club. Things are settled. He has a coach that he clearly respects and has a clear identity now with the team and their expectations and their work with and without the ball. The playing style is clear. Last year there was also a change of manager mid-season so there were really many unsettling things.
‘He’s in the flow that every player and athlete wants. You can’t stay here forever and you should try to come back to it when you’re gone. But he is in the moment and he must be very confident.’
It was no surprise to see how Kane responded to his penalty miss at the World Cup. Few footballers are as opinionated as Kane, with such self-belief. It was the first time he kicked a ball in an England shirt since the World Cup but, in between, he became Tottenham’s record goalscorer and he could do the same for the Three Lions this week.
Southgate also insisted that ‘you can see the happiness’ in Marcus Rashford’s game so far
He praised Harry Kane for his response after missing a penalty in the World Cup against France
‘I had a good chat with him while we were away and I sent him a message before he went back to his club,’ Southgate said. ‘Then I took a step back and looked at how it was…and I never really felt the need to pick up the phone! What I’ve observed is a player still super-confident, ready to perform, hungry to score goals. Sometimes there is no need to interfere.’
Southgate confirmed he had not yet spoken to Sancho but said the United winger would be ‘very close’ to selection if he continues to perform for his club.
He also recently revealed that he didn’t think some of his England players believed they could beat France. There is a feeling among some fans, too, that England beat teams they expected to beat but fell short of the first opportunity to face a big nation. If England are to win the Euros – and Southgate is adamant they will – that must change. They can start by beating Italy in Italy for the first time since 1961.
‘We can talk about it all we like but we can only prove that with our performances, really,’ said Southgate. ‘I think Italy is a classic example. This is another opportunity to break some history that is against us. It’s the kind of quality of opponent and environment that, if you go and win, you can really start building that belief more.’
News/Image Sources: Daily Mail