Sunday, July 21, 2024

Euro 2024: Brilliant Bukayo drives England to the semi-final

Morning.

England are through the semi-finals of the Euros after a penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland, and there are lots of things you don’t need me tell you this morning.

You don’t need me to tell you it was another performance to endure, rather than enjoy from Gareth Southgate’s team. You don’t need me to tell you that once again Harry Kane was abject, a player whose presence is a net-negative for his team, much like Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal. You don’t need me to tell you that despite more possession and more shots overall, England barely threatened the Swiss goal.

And the thing that you – as Arsenal fans (mostly) – don’t need me tell you the most, is that Bukayo Saka is brilliant, and his moment of quality rescued his team. I could expand on the other things you don’t need me to tell you, but who needs that much negativity on a Sunday morning? The focus today should be 100% on Saka and what he produced yesterday.

With England 1-0 down to a 75th minute Breel Embolo goal, it looked like curtains based on everything we’d seen up until that point. The plodding, staid nature of the performance had been exacerbated by Southgate’s refusal to change anything, even though certain individuals were so far below par it was almost disrespectful to the subs who weren’t being considered. The goal forced him into a triple change, and perhaps the slight alteration in shape played a part, but I think all credit has to go to Saka for what he did.

Picking up a pass from Declan Rice, he was outside the right-hand corner of the box, a position we’ve seen him in so often for Arsenal. We’ve also seen him do this: taking responsibility, stepping inside, and firing home a shot which has the power and precision to leave any goalkeeper helpless. It reminded me a bit of the one he scored against Man Utd last season (or the season before??. Either way, a piece of individual brilliance drew England level – his celebrations with Arsenal teammate Aaron Ramsdale were great – and the game went to extra-time.

Even then, Switzerland looked most likely to score again, not making the most of their chances. More Southgate changes meant that Saka was pushed over onto the left-hand side, and late in the second period, he was the man who tracked back to prevent a Swiss cross into the box with an excellent piece of defending. As much as the goal highlighted his attacking prowess, I thought that defensive moment went a long way to sum him up as a player. He is selfless enough, humble enough, and not turbo-charged with hubris, to do what his team needs him to do – rather than some who trade on their ego and reputation to do whatever they feel like doing, wherever they feel like doing it. That is not Bukayo Saka.

And so to penalties. Everyone knows what happened when he missed in the last Euros, and let’s not sugarcoat it either, because surely some of that vile, despicable, dehumanising racist abuse must have been going through the back of his mind as he stood there to take England’s third. As much as we all willed him to score it, as much as we crossed our fingers, said our prayers (if that’s your thing), and made entreaties to whoever we believe in that he would stick it away, it was all down to him.

And as he has shown for club, he did for country. A superb penalty that sent the keeper the wrong way, but would have been unstoppable if he’d read it right. Saka’s penalty came after excellent spot-kicks from Cole Palmer and Jude Bellingham, and was followed by two excellent penalties from Ivan Toney (the no-look thing was both ridiculously impressive and slightly unnerving at the same time!), and Trent Alexander-Arnold. There was pressure for all of these players, and they delivered admirably, but for Saka there was something more. It feels trite to say there were demons to be exorcised, because it’s too abstract. It gives too much of a pass to the real people who exist who caused that hurt. Nevertheless, that history was there, now present in real-time once again.

Afterwards, he said:

“You can fail once but you have a choice whether you put yourself in that position again or not and I’m a guy that is going to put myself in that position. It’s something I embrace. I believed in myself and when I saw the ball hit the net, I was a very happy man.”

I saw Tim Stillman make the point on Twitter last night that Saka’s reaction to missing that penalty for England in 2021 was to take on the responsibility of taking penalties for Arsenal. He does not hide. He will not allow the dregs of society, online or otherwise, to leave their mark on him. Since the Euro 2021 final, he has taken 10 penalties for Arsenal and missed just once. That tells you so much about him, his character, his quality, and to produce what he did yesterday – especially in the context of this tournament where so much has been written and discussed about him and his position, while various other elephants in various rooms are completely ignored – it was so, so impressive.

But you don’t need me to tell you that about Bukayo Saka. Although I just did.

It means that England will face the Netherlands on Wednesday, after they came from behind to beat Turkey. It was a nice header to make it 1-0, but an even better one to make it 1-1 – the very definition of a thumping header. Poor defending saw Gakpo score what turned out to be the winner, but Turkey had a real go in the final stages and were unlucky not to score.

For more on yesterday’s games, we’ll have our Euro 2024 pod for you over on Patreon a bit later this morning. For now, enjoy your Sunday.

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