Gareth Southgate couldn’t help it. The smile spread across the England manager’s face faster than the words came out of his mouth. That is the effect that Bukayo Saka has on you.
“People find themselves doing what I just did, you start smiling,” Southgate said. ‘Because that’s what brings you, you know? You feel a heat You feel like a fabulous human being who broke into the Arsenal team at a time when they weren’t playing so well, and he excelled. And now they’re pushing for the title, and he’s excelling again.”
Saka will play his 25th cap when England take on Italy in Euro qualifiers this week. And he will do it as part of one of the most fit forwards in world football.
There are six goals and three assists for Saka since the World Cup. There are 10 goals and an assist for Harry Kane. And just the 19 goals and six assists from Marcus Rashford from Qatar.
On this front, Southgate hangs his hopes of signing on as England manager with European Championship trophies.
Gareth Southgate praised the form and personality of his fit England attackers
He praised the qualities and mentality of Bukayo Saka (left) in recovering from the heartbreak of Euro 2020
And yet, during his tenure, Southgate has needed to embrace all three. Big mistakes at the most important moments on the most important stages. Saka and Rashford missed penalties in the Euro Cup final shootout against Italy, Tuesday’s rival. A torrent of racist slurs followed. Then Kane, back in December, took his second penalty of the night over the bar as England collided with France in the World Cup.
All three have come 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 from that over the years. “Bukayo has bounced back from the obvious setback with us, he’s got the warmth of the fans with him who can see what he’s about, they can see the genuine nature of his personality,” Southgate said.
“The key for us in the last two tournaments has been that [racist] outpouring towards Bukayo, Marcus and Jadon (Sancho, who also missed in the penalty shootout against Italy) in the initial aftermath, but then that tide turned and it was very important, because I think if the players hadn’t felt that warmth, they could always Worry about what could go wrong in England, as some of us have realized in the past!
‘You don’t want an environment where people are reluctant to go all-in. You felt that love, Bukayo was voted player of the year and he was able to turn it around so quickly, and this tournament Harry Kane felt the same way, and it’s important to us as a group, it’s part of the inhibitions we had. to overcome as a team and we have to continue contributing our grain of sand on the pitch. But when you’ve felt the support of the nation, it gives you a better chance of winning.
‘To be a successful athlete, you have to have resilience. You are going to lose games, you are going to have periods of bad form, you are going to have setbacks.
“But the best ones go through those periods and show that strength of character and have that insatiable desire to improve and win.” We have to light that fire but ultimately the players deserve that credit for coming back from that kind of thing because no matter what conversations or support you give them, ultimately they are the ones delivering it. It’s his wish every morning to get up and go train and put himself in the right space and dedicate his career to doing it well, that’s what makes the difference.”
Saka returned from the Eurocup and did not look back. He scored 12 goals the following season. For Rashford, however, he took longer. His call to the World Cup team was the first since the Euro Cup. He had had problems with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick at Manchester United. Southgate played down the idea that Rashford’s off-field pressures, such as clashing with the Government over school meals, affected his form.
“You can see the happiness,” Southgate said. ‘His completion, you’re watching him move on to opportunities now and expect him to win. For a time, that was not the case. You can see the trust.
He is benefiting from the atmosphere in the club. Things have been fixed. He has a coach that he clearly respects and who now has a clear identity with the team and its expectations and his work with and without the ball. The game style is clear. Last year there was also a manager change in the middle of the season, so there was really a lot of unsettling stuff.
“It’s in that flow that every player and athlete wants to be in. You can’t stay in it forever and you have to try to get back in when you’re out.” But he is in that moment and he must feel super confident.
It’s no surprise to see how Kane responded to his missed World Cup penalty. Few footballers are as determined as Kane, with such self-confidence. This will be the first time he has kicked a ball in an England shirt since the World Cup but, in between, he has become Tottenham’s top scorer and could do the same for the Three Lions this week.
Southgate also insisted that “you can see the happiness” in Marcus Rashford’s work at this time.
He praised Harry Kane for his response to missing a World Cup penalty against France
“I had a good talk with him while we were away and sent him a message before he returned to his club,” Southgate said. ‘Then I took a step back and looked at him… and I didn’t really feel the need to pick up the phone! What I have observed is a player who is still very confident, still ready to play, still hungry to score goals. Sometimes there is no need to interfere.
Southgate confirmed that he has not spoken to Sancho, but said the United winger would be “very close” to the national team 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 also a feeling among some fans that England beat the teams they were expected to beat but came up short the first time they faced a great nation. If England want to win the Euro, and Southgate is convinced that he can do it, that must change. They could start by beating Italy in Italy for the first time since 1961.
“We can talk about it all we want, but we can only show it with our performances, really,” Southgate said. “I think Italy is a classic example. It is another opportunity to break some story that is against us. It’s the kind of quality of the opponent and the environment that if you go and win, you can really start to build that belief even more.”