Saka, England’s smiling student of the game
- Bukayo Saka made a flying start to Qatar 22 with two goals against IR Iran
- Arsenal man’s shooting precision praised by Arsenal team-mate Ramsdale
- “He loves watching football,” adds Ramsdale offering another insight
He was England’s men’s player of the year for 2021/22, selected ahead of Declan Rice and Harry Kane. And the way that Bukayo Saka has begun this FIFA World Cup suggests he could be among their most significant players in the month ahead as well. Saka’s two-goal turn against IR Iran was one of the outstanding individual displays so far at this World Cup, full of exciting surges down the right and garlanded by his brilliant first goal, fired into the top corner on the half-volley from a Harry Maguire knockdown. There was no goal – and a fitness scare – for Harry Kane, but England produced strikes from five other players at the Khalifa International Stadium was a hugely encouraging sign as thoughts turn to Friday’s Group B encounter with the USA. Saka’s own scoring threat is certainly growing. He struck 11 times in the Premier League last season for Arsenal and had reached five in all competitions for his club prior to the pause for this tournament. One player in the England squad who can vouch for his shooting ability is goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, who works with him on the training pitch daily.
He tells FIFA+: “I see it every day. I know exactly what he is about – he finds the corner. He doesn’t necessarily hit it as hard as he needs to, precision is more important to him and more times than not he will find the corner.”
Ramsdale also offers an insight into the character of the 21-year-old whose beaming smile makes him a popular figure in the England camp. “He was trying to play it down,” Ramsdale laughs of Saka’s response to his goals on a World Cup debut that he approached as if he were “playing in the park with his mates by the looks of things”. Ramsdale goes on: “He is quiet but he can be very loud as well. He is always laughing. He can sneak through a room without you knowing he is there yet he picks and chooses his moments which is great. He is an integral member of our group and he’s shown that on the pitch.”
This enhances the perception of a youngster who takes things in his stride. Gareth Southgate once quipped that he was the type of polite young man you would want your daughter to bring home. At UEFA EURO 2020 he was so impressive on the training pitch that he forced his way, unexpectedly, into Southgate’s team, starting three games. He ended that tournament the target of poisonous abuse for his pivotal spot-kick in the final shoot-out against Italy, saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma.
A happier image of him from the EURO features – to his apparent delight – in the artwork which adorns a wall in the team’s base here in Qatar: Saka on an inflatable uniform in the pool, that big smile showing.
Time magazine selected him as one of its “Next Generation Leaders” in October and his football certainly benefits from his thoughtful approach with Ramsdale describing him as an eager student of the game.
“He loves watching football. Back at our club we sit next to each other on the bus and any type of game will be on and we will have it on the iPad and watch it. He loves it … the French league, the German league and every now and then he’ll watch League 1, the Championship, League 2 with me when I’ve got my friends playing. Obscure.” Maybe so, but for Saka himself the spotlight is only burning brighter.