That was until Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac both got crocked for Arsenal, leaving Mikel Arteta forced to field an 18-year-old forward out of position at full back.
Firstly, let’s make it clear, Bukayo Saka is not a defender. His entire development has been centred around pushing defenders back, not vice versa.
Reasonable question marks still remain about his defensive capabilities, but given the circumstances, his age –
No player in Arsenal’s squad has registered more assists than Saka’s nine this season, five of those coming in European competition – the most any Englishman has managed in the Europa League.
He’s been forced to learn an entirely new trade, and he’s flourished at a rate few, if any, saw coming. Asking so much of a kid his age is a pressure that no manager would wish to bestow upon a youngster still in the development stage and yet, he’s excelled.
When the status quo has been restored in north London and Arsenal have their first choice left back fit and ready, Saka will return to his original mould. That much we can be sure of, but even with Kolasinac returning from injury in recent weeks, Arteta has stuck with his academy gem.
That in itself speaks volumes of Saka’s talents, but in an area of the pitch that England are bereft of numbers, the 18-year-old’s inclusion should be both clear and obvious.
What formation Southgate opts to go for could have a bearing on this, though. Given the exploits of the Three Lions in Russia operating with a back three, a role in a wing-back slot could suit. However, throughout Euro 2020 qualifying, Southgate chose to field a flat back four.
Many will argue that the lack of strong, assertive and dominant centre backs has forced his hand in this respect, with no three outstanding candidates to fill that role. Utilising wing backs would allow the likes of Chilwell and Trent Alexander-Arnold to showcase their attacking talent, but Southgate seems less keen on this ploy.
Even if the trend seems to be that Southgate’s go-to setup will be a 4-3-3, nevertheless, Saka ought to be included.
He’s been played in that position for Arsenal, and as it looks like Arteta will continue to select him ahead of Kolasinac and at least until Tierney returns, then there is still time for him to master the trade further.
As it stands there is no arguing that Chilwell is England’s number one left back, that we can all fairly comprehensively agree on.
But what is easy to forget having been (guiltily) caught up in the ensuing Saka hype is that he doesn’t just offer full back cover. Why? Because he’s a forward.
Given the current state of Marcus Rashford, there is a good chance that England will be short on numbers in the left-hand side of the attack. Raheem Sterling has the spot nailed down, but who comes after? Callum Hudson-Odoi has earned his first senior caps, but inconsistency in his progress, as well as a bit-part role in Chelsea’s season, hardly breeds confidence in him providing the necessary ammunition for Harry Kane.
Saka offers splashes creativity and excitement in the final third, along with a few drops of composure and flair that make him a handful for any defender. He can overlap, underlap, beat his man or deliver a pinpoint cross.
Bukayo Saka has now provided nine assists across all competitions this season, more than any other Arsenal player.
Reminder: He’s only 18 years old. pic.twitter.com/IekQxmgf8W
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 20, 2020
At this point, I can already hear this verdict raising furore among the less convinced.
‘He’s completely untested at international level.’
‘Yeah but he’s only 18, the pressure will crush him.’
Valid arguments, sure, but Saka has been thrust into a shockingly poor Arsenal side amid manager uncertainties and defensive injury crises, and emerged from it all with flying colours.
On Thursday he went to one of the most hostile atmospheres in European football, put in a man-of-the-match performance and set up Alexandre Lacazette’s winner with an assist that Robin van Persie afterwards deemed worthy of Paul Scholes or Dennis Bergkamp.
Yes, the hype is real, but of course, patience is needed with such a young prospect. He can’t be burdened with too much pressure just yet – even if he’s already enduring that at Arsenal – but this discussion is around his inclusion for England.
As it is, he has to go. Not as a starter – obviously, as there are members of that squad far more capable than him at present – but as an option that boasts versatility down the left flank in an area that injury and a lack of talent have depleted, surely it’s a no-brainer
How Rose’s season plays out during his stint at Newcastle is still to be seen, but he was on the receiving end of a 4-0 thumping by Arsenal recently – another game where Saka shone (nutmegs and all).
It’s not out of the realms of possibility – but unlikely – that the Doncaster-born man revitalises his career at St James’ Park and Southgate continues picking him for the squad. But even still, for defensive and attacking cover, Saka is your man.
After a long Premier League season and then playing every three days during the summer, injuries will happen, it’s a given. There will be space in that squad for an inexperienced head or two to make their mark or fill in as cover. Make that Saka.
And, besides, didn’t Southgate once say he’d pick on form, not reputation?
“I never pick on reputation – form has to come into it.”
Oh yeah, he did.
For more from Ross Kennerley, follow him on Twitter!