Gareth Southgate ignored calls to play Bukayo Saka on England’s left in the name of team balance because, with the Arsenal man on the right, Euro 2024 glory is a possibility.

When Gareth Southgate’s starting lineup to face Switzerland was announced 70 minutes before kick-off on Saturday, England fans in Düsseldorf, on social media and those deep in pub-analysis mode seemed to be making one very big assumption.

And most of them were very happy about it.

Finally, they gushed, Southgate had decided to play Bukayo Saka on the left.

In hindsight, it was quite the jump to make. Southgate had only made one change to his starting lineup, bringing Ezri Konsa in for the suspended Marc Guéhi, but everyone was so intent on Saka playing on the left that they were all jumping to the same conclusion – that reports earlier in the week that England had been training with a back three meant Southgate was going to do what the fans wanted.

But Southgate had other ideas. “Well, let’s see what the formation is first,” he said with a wry smile in a pre-game interview.

Saka hadn’t started a game on the left in any capacity for club or country since a failed experiment with England in a Nations League defeat to Italy in September 2022. The occasion before that was in the 4-0 defeat to Hungary a few months earlier.

The last time he started on the left for Arsenal was away to Crystal Palace in October 2021. That day, Saka had just 17 touches of the ball before being replaced at half-time by Albert Sambi Lokonga.

To say that was a different world would be an understatement. Saka has since developed into arguably the best right-sided attacker in world football, and has barely played on the left at all; neither consistently nor effectively.

So, to move him over to the left flank just so England had a left-footer on that side of the pitch would have been quite the call for Southgate to make. Even if a lot of the fanbase wanted him to do that.

But there was still a lot of surprise – nay, indignation – when the game started and Saka was again on the right, with Kieran Trippier still on the left.

England’s left side has clearly been a huge problem at Euro 2024. Trippier has looked uncomfortable and awkward there, never able to attack around the outside (or so much as give an opponent the impression that he might).

The problem is exacerbated by there also being no natural left-sided midfielder in the squad who Southgate trusts, with Anthony Gordon having only appeared once in Germany so far, and even then only as an 89th-minute substitute in the goalless draw with Slovenia.

But that isn’t a problem that should be fixed by moving another player out of position. And not just any player at that. Saka has been England’s most consistent attacking threat at the Euros so far (in an admittedly weak field).

Jude Bellingham scored the opener against Serbia, but it was Saka who made it (though he wasn’t credited with an assist due to the deflection his cross took). In what – rather depressingly – might still be England’s most promising 45 minutes of the tournament so far, Saka was a key threat.

On Saturday against Switzerland, with England lacking ideas as a team, they needed individuals to produce moments, and Saka was on hand.

In the first 45 minutes alone, he completed four successful dribbles, which was half of England’s total and more than all of Switzerland’s players combined. No player has completed more than six in an entire game at Euro 2024, and only eight have managed more than four, a few of whom only did so with extra-time.

Even when he isn’t directly beating an opponent, Saka causes problems. He draws defenders towards the ball, which in turn creates space elsewhere. He takes up great positions and demands the ball; he has received at least 17 more line-breaking passes (89) than any other player at Euro 2024.

He also carries the ball forward without actually beating a defender extremely effectively, gaining his team valuable yards up the pitch with defenders scared to dive in as they know he is quick enough to flick the ball away from them and race down the line.

The list of seven attackers who have made more progressive carries (moving the ball up the field) of more than 10 metres than him (20) – Jérémy Doku (32), Rafael Leão (31), Lamine Yamal (29), Ousmane Dembélé (28), Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (23), Jamal Musiala (22), Nico Williams (21) – is essentially just a list of the wingers who have had the best Euro 2024 so far.

And most of them are or were playing in more functional teams than England (it’s not hard, is it?), in which performing well would have been easier.

He is so skilled on the right, able to dart down the line and put a cross in or cut inside onto his lethal left foot – as he did to devastating effect on the weekend – and that often means opponents double on him. He ranks among the top 20 players at Euro 2024 and the best for England for carries followed by a shot (3), a goal (1), a chance created (4), and a successful dribble (12).

bukayo saka chance-creating carries at euro 2024

Part of what was so frustrating against Switzerland was that as soon as England had some players on the left after Luke Shaw and Eberechi Eze were introduced, they overloaded that flank and their opponents were less able to focus on Saka.

In the below image, England have four players towards the left side, and after switch of play to the right and an underlapping run from Declan Rice, Saka was, for the first time all game – in the 80th minute with England 1-0 down – able to cut inside and work a sight of goal. His unstoppable effort flew into the far corner of the net to rescue England.

Bukayo Saka goal vs Switzerland

If Southgate wasn’t already vindicated for sticking to his guns, now he was. He deserves credit for ignoring the noise, knowing he had to keep Saka in the part of the pitch where he is most dangerous. There was, in fairness, perhaps too much defensive work asked of the Arsenal man; in this wing-back role he had to drop back into defence when Switzerland had sustained periods of possession, which meant Saka was less able to help carry the team up the pitch.

But if he had been on the left, while England might have got more crosses in from that side, there is little reason to believe it would have solved their problems or led to more chances.

That is largely because moving Saka away from the right denies England their best player in that position.

Phil Foden is obviously a very special player, but his instinct is to come inside. In that key moment for the goal, it’s fair to wonder whether he would have been holding the width on the right when the ball was being switched out from the left.

Jarrod Bowen is another option, but it’s difficult to imagine him doing what Saka did. He is more of a counter-attacking threat than someone who cuts in and shoots from distance. Of the 44 goals he has scored in 166 Premier League games, only three have come from outside the penalty area.

Whether Southgate should be fielding multiple players out of position in his starting XI each game is up for debate (don’t get us started on the decision to gamble on Shaw’s fitness), but there is no sense in removing the most consistent attacking threat from the right flank.

The sight of Saka scoring his goal and then confidently converting his spot-kick in the shootout was enough to warm the hearts of even the most spiteful of critics following his Euro 2020 final shootout miss. You’d have to be completely joyless not to be willing the 22-year-old to glory this summer.

With him on the right side of attack, England – however uninspiring they have been in Germany so far – will always have a chance. Southgate knows it.

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