Saturday, 7 March 2020

Should Nigeria fight England for Bukayo Saka?

By no means is Alexandre Lacazette the absolute authority on the pedigree of young players in the Premier League.

However, his glowing praise of youngster Bukayo Saka – he referred to the 18-year-old as the best young player in the English top flight – did not ring hollow at all. While it can be disputed, it is not preposterous.

The winger has shone in his repurposing as a marauding left-back, and has assisted more goals than any other player in the Arsenal squad so far this season. Put simply, while this has been an underwhelming campaign for the Gunners, it could have been so much worse without their new wing wizard.

His form, especially with the Euros looming in the summer, has pushed the conversation around his international allegiance to the front burner.

England's left-back options all have question marks over them: Ben Chilwell has struggled to find his best form since December, the utility of Danny Rose's move to Newcastle United remains to be seen, Luke Shaw has only just begun to look serviceable as the left-sided centre-back in a back three at Manchester United, and Ashley Young is a little long in the tooth just now.

Tough luck for Nigeria then, who would have been hoping to snag another gem of the British production line undetected. It now appears that, if the Nigeria Football Federation wish to have the West London-born Saka turn out for the Super Eagles, it will come down to a protracted battle.

Herein lies a paradox: the very performances that have made him worth pursuing for Nigeria are also making him less attainable. With each passing game, it will only get more onerous.

So much so, in fact, that it is worth considering: does Nigeria actually need to be involved in this tussle at all?

The first layer of difficulty is the fact that Saka has played for England up to U-19 level, and so would require more than a little paperwork to switch his international allegiance.

This is even presupposing his amenability to the idea; he has been keen to embrace his Nigerian heritage at every opportunity, but that is not to say he would be willing to lay down all the perks that come with being a full England international. It is not a coincidence that, within weeks of committing to the Three Lions, both Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham inked new contracts at Chelsea. As it happens, Saka is presently in contract talks with Arsenal.

However, there is a more fundamental concern: do Nigeria actually need him?

It may seem preposterous to suggest, but there is a case to be made he is not exactly essential, especially in his current guise. There is no denying his profile is attractive – he is unnervingly calm in possession, has courage, and possesses a telling final ball.

That said, the recent comments credited to Arsenal's head of youth development Marcel Lucassen – he referred to Saka as having "the potential to become one of the best three wing-backs in the world" – revealed the perception and expectation of him at the club. Far from being a short-term fix, his deployment at left-back might very well be permanent.

No disrespect at all to the position – full-backs are of the utmost importance in modern football – but do the Super Eagles have a pressing need in that area?

Consider this: his peculiar deployment within Mikel Arteta's system at Arsenal liberates him to be a force in the final third, with Granit Xhaka filling in for him further back.

It is not the sort of tactical adaptation that would be made for him at international level for Nigeria, where there's already a functioning system in place and he would be required to sink or swim—hardly ideal conditions for a teenager.

There is of course the option of simply utilizing him further forward for Nigeria, in a role the player himself has stated a preference for.

This is hardly unusual: in recent times, the likes of Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel have been pressed into service for the national team in roles that were different from those they played at club level.

Both, unsurprisingly, relished their heightened prominence in the final third when in green and white.

The results have been decidedly mixed though, which will come as a surprise to no one. The more time a player spends in one role at club level, the less suited he becomes to another, even while retaining a basic level of competence still.

As such, getting Saka and fielding him further afield would arguably not be the best use of his skillset, especially if he continues on the path to fulfilling Lucassen's prophecy

While there can be no denying Saka is a marvellous talent either England or Nigeria would be glad to have, it remains unclear at this time just how best that ability can be harnessed on the international stage.

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