Gareth Southgate couldn’t help himself. The grin stretched across the England manager’s face quicker than the words emerged from his mouth. That’s just the effect Bukayo Saka has on you.
‘People find themselves doing what I’ve just done, you start to smile,’ said Southgate. ‘Because that’s what he brings to you, you know? You feel a warmth. You feel a fabulous human who has broken into the Arsenal team at a time they weren’t playing so well — and excelled. And now they are pushing for the title — and he’s excelling again.’
Saka will earn his 25th cap when England face Italy in the 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 one assist for Harry Kane. And just the 19 goals and six assists for Marcus Rashford since Qatar.
On this front three Southgate hangs his hopes of signing off as England manager with silverware at the European Championship.
Gareth Southgate heaped praise on the form and personalities of his in-form England attackers
He hailed Bukayo Saka’s (L) qualities and mentality to bounce back from Euro 2020 heartache
And yet, during his stint, Southgate has needed to put his arm around all three. Big mistakes in the biggest moments on the biggest stages. For Saka and Rashford, missed penalties in the shootout in the Euros final against Tuesday’s opponents Italy. A torrent of racist abuse followed. Then Kane, back in December, blazed his second penalty of the night over the bar as England crashed out to France at the World Cup.
All three have come back stronger, refusing to be grounded by the weight of failure or what could 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 couple of tournaments has been there was that [racist] outpouring towards Bukayo, Marcus and Jadon (Sancho, who also missed in the shootout against Italy) in the initial aftermath but then that tide turned and it was hugely important — because I think if the players hadn’t felt that warmth, they might always be worried about what might go wrong with England, like some of us in the past have realised!
‘You don’t want an environment where people are reluctant to be all-in. That love was felt, Bukayo was voted player of the year and was able to turn it round so quickly, and this tournament Harry Kane felt the same thing — and it is important to us as a group, it is part of the inhibitions we had to overcome as a team and we’ve got to continue to do our bit on the field. But when you’ve felt the support of the nation, it does give you a better chance of winning.
‘To be a successful sportsperson, you have to have resilience. You are going to lose matches, you are going to have periods of bad form, you are going to have setbacks.
‘But the very best come through those periods and they show that strength of character and they have that insatiable desire to get better and to win. We have to light that fire but, in the end, the players deserve that credit to come back from those sorts of things because no matter what conversations or support you put around them, ultimately it is them that deliver that. It’s their desire every morning to get up and go training and put themselves in the right space and dedicate their career to getting it right — that is the bit that makes the difference.’
Saka returned from the Euros and did not look 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’d struggled under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick at Manchester United. Southgate played down the idea that Rashford’s off-field pressures, like taking on the Government over school meals, impacted his form.
‘You can see the happiness,’ said Southgate. ‘His finishing, you’re seeing him move on to chances now and expecting him a score. For a period, that wasn’t the case. You can see the confidence.
‘He is benefiting from the environment at the club. Things have settled. He has a coach who he clearly respects and who 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 the change of manager mid-season as well so there was a lot of unsettling things really.
‘He’s in that flow that every player and athlete wants to be in. You can’t remain in it forever and you must try to get back into it when you are out of it. But he is in that moment and he must feel super-confident.’
It is not surprising to see how Kane responded to his penalty miss at the World Cup. Few footballers are as single-minded as Kane, with such self-belief. This will be the first time he has kicked a ball in an England shirt since the World Cup but, in between, he’s become Tottenham’s record goalscorer and could do the same for the Three Lions this week.
Southgate also insisted ‘you can see the happiness’ in Marcus Rashford’s play at the moment
He hailed 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,’ said Southgate. ‘Then I took a step back and had a look at how it was…and I haven’t really felt the need to pick the phone up! What I’ve observed is a player still super-confident, still ready to perform, hungry to score goals. Sometimes there’s no need to interfere.’
Southgate confirmed he hasn’t spoken to Sancho but said the United winger would be ‘very close’ to selection if he continues to perform for his club.
He also revealed recently that he didn’t think some of his England players believed they could beat France. There’s a feeling among some fans, too, that England beat teams they are expected to beat but fall short at the first time of facing a big nation. If England are to win the Euros — and Southgate is adamant they can — that must change. They could 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 do think Italy is a classic example. It is another chance to break some history that is against us. It is the type of quality of opponent and environment that, if you go to and win, you can really start to build that belief even more.’