Bukayo Saka was trusted with England’s fifth penalty is a testament to his quality and character, writes Sam Dean
In theory, there was absolutely no reason why Bukayo Saka should not have taken England’s fifth penalty in the shootout against Italy. This is a teenager who has spent the past two years showing maturity beyond his years, adapting to each challenge that comes his way and clearing each hurdle as soon as it appears.
Penalty shootouts, though, are not a time for logical theories. This is instead a time for unspeakable, almost unbearable pressure. A test of a nerve that delves so deep into a footballer’s brain that it reaches stress points that have never previously been pressed.
Gareth Southgate knows this, of course, so it is a measure of his faith in Saka that he chose the 19-year-old to take England’s fifth penalty. But Southgate also knows the pain that penalties can cause and the deep scars that they can inflict, and in the aftermath of Saka’s miss there was a simple question hanging in the heavy air: why did he thrust all of this responsibility onto the shoulders of a teenager who had never before taken a senior spot-kick?
As Saka broke down in tears on the Wembley turf, the overriding emotion towards him was one of heartfelt sympathy. “The whole nation is going to need to cuddle him,” said Gary Neville, the former England defender. “This will build your success, you will see,” said Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his captain at Arsenal.
Southgate took full responsibility, which was typical of a thoroughly decent man but did not soften the sense that he and his coaching staff had placed Saka in the most unfair of positions. The order of the takers was decided, Southgate said, on the performances of the players in training. He should know better than anyone that the pressures of a real-life penalty are entirely different to the demands placed on the players behind closed doors.
What of the senior players on the pitch? Roy Keane, in his role as a pundit on ITV, was characteristically scathing. “If you are Raheem Sterling or Jack Grealish, you cannot sit there and have a young kid go ahead of you,” said Keane. “You can’t sit there. That must be hard to take. You have to get in front of the young kid and say ‘I will step up before you.’”
Grealish responded on Twitter, writing: “I said I wanted to take one!!!! The gaffer has made so many right decisions through this tournament and he did tonight! But I won’t have people say that I didn’t want to take a peno when I said I will…”
None of this is to patronise Saka, because that would be the most unfair treatment of all. Saka is not a “kid”, as described by Keane. He is an adult man who plays adult football in an adult way and has done so ever since he broke into the Arsenal team two years ago. He had the courage to step up when others did not, and he might well feel rather uncomfortable with the suggestion that he now needs a “cuddle” after his miss.
It would truly take a heart of stone, though, not to be moved by his instant anguish on the pitch. It did not feel just for a young player who has done so much fine work in this tournament, emerging as one of England’s most important attackers just weeks after many had raised their eyebrows at his inclusion in the squad.
For much of extra time, Saka appeared to be operating as a No 10 in a 4-2-3-1 system. Add that to the list of the positions he has played for club and country because that is a new one for him. We have now seen him at left-back, left wing-back, left-wing, right wing-back, right-wing, central midfield and No 10. A reminder: he is 19 years old.
Saka’s future will not be defined by this, even if it might take him some time to disassociate his name from the night of July 11, 2021. Nor will Jadon Sancho or Marcus Rashford (who, incidentally, were given one minute of game-time to warm-up for their penalties) be defined by their failures from the spot.
For Saka, especially, there will surely be some understanding and appreciation of what he has done. This is a teenager who has carried Arsenal in long spells of the last 18 months, and an England player who showed a level of bravery that more experienced players did not share. These facts will not ease the turmoil over the coming weeks and months, but they should absolutely prevent him from becoming a scapegoat.
“Gone are the days when we criticise players for missing a penalty,” said Neville. “That is not going to happen this time.”
The headstrong Saka has enough time, and more than enough ability, to put this right in the coming decade. Tournament football provides formative experiences for all involved, and especially for teenagers who suddenly find themselves at the heart of an international storm.
Saka is not to blame for being in this most unenviable of positions, because he was thrust into the storm by more experienced decision-makers, but you can be sure that he will be the one to pull himself out of it.