Following his instrumental performance in Arsenal’s 3-1 win at Southampton on Tuesday, Bukayo Saka had his odds trimmed for a place in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for this summer’s European Championships.
The 19-year-old is now 8/11 to be included in the 23-man squad and it’s little wonder given how influential the winger has been in Arsenal’s revitalised Premier League season, with four goals and two assists in his last six league outings.
So good have his performances been that manager Mikel Arteta said in his post-match press conference following the win at St Mary’s that Saka can develop into a “really complete player”.
It’s hard to argue with that notion. In fact, one Gunners legend believes the teenager is already Arsenal’s best player and has been for some time.
“He’s been sensational,” Nigel Winterburn told bookmakers.co.uk. “He’s been Arsenal’s best player for a season and a half now.
“What you have to remember is that he came in as an emergency left-back. Naturally, he’s a winger or somewhere along the front line so for him to have played left-back, left wing-back, left wing and now right wing shows that he can adapt to many positions and not look out of place.
“That means you have an incredible footballing talent who can understand each role given to him and can execute it to the best of his ability.”
Indeed, that versatility is likely to have caught the eye of England boss Southgate, who gave Saka his international debut against Wales last year and has used the youngster three times since.
He hasn’t disappointed when called upon and Winterburn insists he must go to the Euros based on his performances this season while for Arsenal he’s the first name on the team sheet in his eyes.
“I don’t think he can be left out of the squad with the way he’s playing,” he said.
“He may not be first choice, but he’s someone that can play left-back, wing-back or right-side of a forward line – Gareth Southgate will know he has a player who can start in all those positions or come on and fill one of those positions.
“Having a versatile player like that who can play to a very high standard is so important to an international squad.
“I think the most impressive thing has been his level of performances for such a young man who is really only just beginning his career.
“If Saka is fit, he can’t be left out of the Arsenal team, you’ve got to have him in there. Now and again Arteta might want to leave him out of the side to give him a bit of a breather, but apart from that he’s the first name on the team sheet.”
Despite their FA Cup exit, January has been a good month for Arsenal having moved into the top half of the table for the first time since November on the back of five wins out of six in the league.
The loan signing of Martin Odegaard from Real Madrid will have given fans a boost too, but Winterburn doesn’t expect any more transfer business to be done before Monday’s deadline – although he’s expecting plenty of activity in the summer.
He said: “I don’t see us doing much transfer activity if I’m honest, I think it might even be a case of offloading players being the bigger priority, but that might have to wait until the summer.
“The squad still isn’t strong enough, let’s not get carried away. It’s not long ago I was warning these players not to think they’re too good to go down – I played in a West Ham team that thought that and we got relegated in 2003, so I should know.
“We had some terrific players but we couldn’t win a game of football and that’s what it was looking like for Arsenal before Christmas so you have to give them great credit for digging themselves out of a big hole.
“But they’ve got to keep going and they’ve got to show us where they can finish in the league. They can’t afford to have the same thing happen next season so there will need to be additions to the squad.
“Maybe Arteta will look to bring in another goalkeeper as backup to Bernd Leno. Right-back might be a position they need to fill depending on what happens with Hector Bellerin with rumours that they could sell him, although those rumours have been around a long time.
“I think Arsenal’s squad is strong, but it needs to be stronger. But there were warning signs earlier in the season and there’s still loads of improvement to come.
“The one thing I’ve said all along in this is that, given time, I still think Mikel Arteta will do a very good job, we just need to accept that we’ve fallen so far behind that it’s not going to be a quick fix, we need a rebuilding period which will take a while.”
Arsenal vs Man Utd
A real test of Arsenal’s new-found form arrives this Saturday in the form of old foes Manchester United, who missed the chance to return to the summit of the Premier League on Wednesday with a surprise home defeat to Sheffield United.
However, United visit the Emirates with the best away record in the division – eight wins and two draws from 10 games – and although both teams have regressed since his playing days Winterburn admits it’s one of the fixtures he looks forward to the most every season.
“I think the ferocity of this fixture has changed because you can’t tackle as hard as you used to and you can’t get away with some of the things we used to try and pull,” he said.
“So it has changed, and it’s not as tense as it once was because the two teams no longer sit first and second in the league, but when I watch Arsenal verses United I think back to the old games I played in and it brings a smile to my face because it was incredible to be a part of.”
Winterburn played for Arsenal from 1987 through to 2000. Winning three league titles, two FA Cups and the Cup Winners’ Cup, but when he reflects on his career it will always be his battles with United that stand out in his memory.
“It was two juggernauts going head-to-head, not wanting to give an inch,” he said. “The sheer battle of trying to make sure that my team finishes ahead of Manchester United. Me and my team-mates tried to do everything within our powers to ensure that.
“There was a fierce rivalry and I had some great battles with Brian McClair. Players, fans and the managers never wanted to show any weakness and both sides went at it full leather. At the end of it all, the best team always came out on top.
“With all the tension that was involved, it was an amazing feeling playing in those two games each season, home and away, because we really did believe that if we beat United we would be champions.
“You only have to go back and re-watch the games to see the tension in the players’ faces, some of us wouldn’t even engage with each other. There would be pushing and shoving, mostly handbags to be fair, but it added to the drama. But when you won, you could feel the electric every time.
“This time around, with Covid, we’re not going to get that, but also because both clubs have been below the heights they used to be.
“OK, United have dragged themselves back up to the top end of the table this season and are in a title fight while Arsenal are only ninth, but this weekend they’ll still be looking at each other as their old enemy.”