Manchester: After Bukayo Saka struck his first senior career hat-trick in England’s 7-0 rout of North Macedonia in Euro 2024 qualifying on Monday his national team manager Gareth Southgate was asked if the 21-year-old is nearing football’s top echelon.
“He’s there,” Southgate replied matter-of-factly.
Despite a nagging Achilles injury, Saka shone in England’s fourth straight Group C win that has top with 12 points.
Performing at a really high level
“When he broke into the team at Arsenal what struck us was that in a team that were having a difficult time he was performing at a really high level,” Southgate said.
“Then when the team were playing well he was still a key player and performing at a really high level.
“So, that says a lot about his mentality, his ability to deal with pressure. And that’s the environment that we’re in all the time. He’s exceptional to work with.”
At the end of a long season in which Arsenal finished runners-up to Manchester City in the Premier League, Saka could have sat the game out with the injury, Southgate said.
“To see the joy on his face, he’s such a popular member of the team. And so humble, works incredibly hard.”
The 21-year-old Saka was joined up front by captain Harry Kane, who scored record-extending 57th and 58th goals for his country, and Marcus Rashford in a forward line fans on social media were calling the best England have had in a while.
Is it a strike force Southgate would like to build around? “I think for different games, different profiles of players are important, and of course you can never be sure that we’re going to have everybody available,” he said.
“So that’s why nights like tonight, when the team were going well, we said to them at halftime, ‘You have to keep enjoying a night like tonight, you have to keep driving and finish it well’, because it’s not often you have the team at that sort of a moment really.”
Despite what Southgate called “an outrageous” scoreline, Kane did not open the floodgates until the 27th minute.
“That wasn’t really how we were expecting the game to be because there’s no evidence that Macedonia would suffer like that,” Southgate said.
“There’s no evidence that the game in the end would be as straightforward as it was. Certainly in the opening 20 minutes it didn’t work that way.
“So it’s huge credit to our senior players who have set a brilliant tone all week.”
England do not resume qualifying matches until September 9 and Southgate is looking forward to the down time after a unique season interrupted by November 20-December 18 World Cup in Qatar.
“I’ve said all along, everybody has to collaborate on the calendar because there’s no point us just talking to the Premier League and sorting the FA Cup or the League Cup out, it’s broader than that…
“I don’t like to talk about it at these moments because otherwise there’s every excuse to not perform on a night like tonight.
“The players have shown psychologically we refreshed them, we gave the bulk of them two weeks off. That came with a bit of a risk, but they responded really well.
“And I think psychologically they’re refreshed coming into these games and viewed it as a sort of mini preseason before they go and have another couple of weeks break.
“I’d be amazed if we have a World Cup in the middle of a season again.”