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Southgate’s ‘faith healing’ with England gives Saka his joy back

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Southgate’s ‘faith healing’ with England gives Saka his joy back

Faith. Never lose it,” wrote Bukayo Saka on social media after scoring twice in England’s 6-2 win over Iran on Monday.

For the Arsenal star, those four words are testament to his belief in a higher power, but also speak to his own strength of mind and powers of recovery.

Saka’s decisive penalty miss in the Euro 2020 Final defeat by Italy remains a painful memory for both the 21-year-old and the country, but his performance in England’s World Cup opener suggests he is on course to write a different kind of history here.

To this end, the forward is perhaps the best example of Gareth Southgate’s work to fundamentally change the mindset of his players.

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Part tactician, part psychologist, Southgate has spent hours talking to squad about the need to break from previous failures, feel unencumbered by the past and, above all, enjoy representing their country.

“We are nothing to do with the past,” Southgate said on the eve of the Russia World Cup four years ago. “The past can inform us and help us but shouldn’t shape us.”

The theme was particularly relevant before the win over old rivals Germany at Euro 2020, when the manager told his players that “past baggage” was “an irrelevance” — and no member of the current squad embodies Southgate’s message more than Saka.

Steps forward in Russia and last summer have ensured that the majority of the squad now have positive memories of big tournaments, leaving Southgate with less call to exorcise ghosts, but Saka still has every reason to feel heavy in an England shirt.

In the press conference room at the Khalifa International Stadium on Monday, he admitted the final of Euro 2020 “will be with me forever”.

Yet, in his first appearance at a major tournament since, he was plainly unburdened by history, playing with the freedom, verve and joy which characterise his performances for the Gunners.

Southgate deserves credit for ensuring Saka has not continued to carry the experience of last summer, revealing he has had several conversations with the forward since and citing the standing ovation he received at Brentford on the opening day of last season as a healing moment.

“I’ve had a couple of long chats with him early in the season,” Southgate said today. “He’s had great support as well from Mikel [Arteta] and everybody at Arsenal, I think he’s felt that from us as well. And, of course, he was England player of the year last year, so I think the most important thing he felt was the warmth from the fans.

“I was at Brentford the opening day of last season, where that was really heartwarming to see, the response he got, and that would have helped him to put things into perspective.”

PA

The result is a Saka who will never be able to forget what happened at Wembley on July 11 last year but has not allowed the moment to shape him, and personifies the joy and exuberance that Southgate wants his players to feel at representing England. “It’s unbelievable what he’s done,” said Declan Rice after Monday’s game.

“It says everything about his strength of character. You saw what happened last summer, everyone was with him then. He’s flourishing with Arsenal. He’s playing with a smile on his face. You see him around the training ground, he is the happiest person around the place. We’re all so happy for him.”

Saka’s miss against Italy was particularly cruel because he had been a breakout star and one of England’s brightest players at the Euros. The forward has almost always impressed for his country and although Southgate’s decision to pick him ahead of Phil Foden against Iran was characterised as a close call, it was plainly justified on past performances — not least in England’s last game before the finals, the 3-3 draw with Germany in September.

Against Iran, it was Southgate’s faith that was vindicated and, having not allowed the last tournament to define him, perhaps this World Cup will do just that for Saka.

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