On Tuesday evening, Bukayo Saka started for England against Czech Republic. His inclusion was a surprise and probably wouldn’t have happened at all were it not for the peculiar situation that sees England midfielder Mason Mount in self-isolation for a mild violation of covid protocols.
Saka demonstrated what Arsenal fans already knew, that his is an exceptional talent. It is entirely understandable that the wider footballing public have not been as tuned into the frequency of Saka’s talent. It stands to reason supporters who see a player every week are more aware of their emerging talents.
I would imagine Manchester City fans were alive to the size of Phil Foden’s talent before I was. It also won’t have escaped your notice last season that Arsenal finished eighth and were pretty much never any higher than that in the table during the campaign. This Arsenal team is not as widely watched as previous vintages.
Also, nobody watches the Europa League before the final unless they are watching their own team. While Saka has not exactly been a secret, the extent to which he is not just potential but talent already realised escaped most people, I think. I wrote about Saka in January and his exceptionally high footballing IQ.
That might be another reason that it took the wider public a while to appreciate Saka- he doesn’t have a tangible superpower. People love Jack Grealish not just because he’s good, but because he is easy to appreciate with his dribbling. Saka is a good dribbler too, he has a lot of attributes in fact, which means that none of his qualities are especially dominant.
The shortcut to the public and the mainstream media’s attention for any English footballer is to play well for England in a tournament game. Saka was voted man of the match in a 1-0 victory over Czech Republic at Wembley and that will be his crossover moment into the public consciousness.
Remember, large swathes of the English press and public thought Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a mere ‘flat track bully’ until he scored a bicycle kick in a friendly against an England team containing Ryan Shawcross. He had won two Eredivisies, six Serie A’s and a La Liga title at that point but scoring an admittedly outrageous goal against England earned him a reputation as a top-class talent in the country.
When an Arsenal player “goes supernova” for England, as an English Arsenal fan in particular, it can be a double-edged sword. In the short-term, you feel a burst of pride for the player and a strange, almost smug satisfaction that everyone can now see what you have seen for the last 18 months,
However, the coverage around England (and most national teams I would wager) is, to coin a phrase, fucked up. If you think some of the furious cliques that form around your own club’s players are a little intense, it’s nothing compared to the cults that take root around a national team, especially during a major tournament.
Major tournaments also attract more casual viewers (which is fine, there is plenty of room for everyone to enjoy!) but it does add to the cauldron of speculation and counter-speculation. This must be how virologists feel during a pandemic- after quietly going about your job and area of expertise for many years, suddenly, everyone is an expert. (I realise this is a flattering analogy, none of us has quite the expertise in football that a virologist has earned in their field).
The problem with one of ‘your’ boys becoming the darling of the nation is that the glitter fades quickly. Shortly after you are accepting the garlands, you are swatting away the knives. We all saw it happen to David Seaman, the anointed national hero at Euro 96. The status earned him extra scrutiny and he quickly became a scapegoat- extra scrutiny is a particularly unforgiving enemy for a goalkeeper.
Since Seaman, the careers of England goalkeepers show some serious drift after the spotlight of minding the net for the Three Lions. Paul Robinson, Joe Hart, Rob Green, Scott Carson, Richard Wright, Chris Kirkland, Fraser Forster and Jack Butland have all seen their careers fade after a brief dance in that soda light.
Sometimes you are allowed to reverse this tried and tested journey, as David Beckham managed. In the main however, once you “crossover” into the conscience of the England fan, you can quickly be the subject of their ire. Harry Kane led the Premier League for goals and for assists last season yet there are people that swear absolutely blind he has become rubbish in the space of three weeks because of three underwhelming games in a cautious England team.
This is not to say that I am concerned about Saka himself. I am certain he will be just fine with the expectation- that is something all elite players have to live with. No, my concern is us, dear reader- Arsenal fans. Because we are all about to get very tired defending him when one slightly misshapen pass is used as evidence that IT HAS ALL GONE TO HIS HEAD and that he was never that good anyway.
National sides and club sides exist in completely different ecosystems, as this tournament illustrates, it is simply not possible for teams that spend so little time together to put on the kind of fare we might be used to at the top of the Premier League or the business end of the Champions League. France are absurdly talented but mind numbingly boring to watch.
That creates additional grist to an enormous mill. England fans get very frustrated watching a team that has some unrealistic expectations attached to it and, as we’ve seen in the past with Seaman, Adams and co, when one of ‘your’ boys is in there, they are in the line of fire. I am minded of Noel Gallagher’s aside in the Oasis documentary Supersonic, “When the tabloids get involved, that’s when it goes to the dark side.”
Personally, this is why I prefer for England to have as little Arsenal involvement as possible. I don’t spend the whole game fretting that the Arsenal player is going to bear the brunt of opprobrium. Every time the Arsenal player gets the ball, I draw breath, desperate for them to complete the pass and not draw undue attention to themselves.
It’s a kind of anxiety I prefer to be liberated from when watching England and it is one that we’ll have to deal with as Arsenal fans. For now, we can bask in the reflective glory of our star boy. England play again on Tuesday and Saka probably has enough good will in the bank not to become “the villain” quite yet but he’s about to become more heavily scrutinised. I am certain Saka can deal with it, the question is, can we?