The return of UEFA club competitions this week offered a reminder that there remain significant hoops to jump through before the delayed European Championship kicks off.
Fixtures being switched to alternative venues due to local coronavirus regulations cast the multiple host city model for Euro 2020 in an unhelpful light, with March’s international break set to throw up fresh challenges.
Postponing and rearranging a major sporting event due to ongoing and unspeakably tragic global circumstances makes any focus on the footballing concerns within the equation feel somewhat crass.
But all 24 men leading countries into the finals will look at their squads before kick-off and ponder whether the additional 12 months of waiting and haphazard preparation have been a help or a hindrance in terms of form and personnel.
For England manager Gareth Southgate, the delay looks to have been advantageous.
It is highly unlikely the now resurgent John Stones and Luke Shaw would have featured in his defensive plans, much less centre-forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is now the obvious back-up to captain Harry Kane.
Aston Villa’s sparkling creative inspiration Jack Grealish now has England caps to his name, while a crop of richly gifted youngsters are flourishing.
None more so than Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden, who will go head to head when Premier League leaders Manchester City travel to Arsenal on Sunday.
Learning on the job
When Southgate comes to whittle down his final 23, versatility will count as a plus point for those hopeful of making the cut.
Foden and Saka have it in abundance, even if they have edged towards a degree of specialism during stunning runs of individual form during English football’s winter months.
A central midfielder on his way through the youth ranks at boyhood club City, Foden’s deployment on the left-wing has more or less coincided with the record-breaking 17-match winning run across all competitions that left Pep Guardiola’s side 10 points clear at the start of the weekend
Not that it stopped Guardiola starting the 20-year-old as a false nine away to Liverpool, before switching Foden to the right flank for the second half, from where he provided an assist and a goal to inspire a statement 4-1 win.
Then, with Ilkay Gundogan injured, he was back in midfield to open the scoring during Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Everton.
“He can play in both positions, he is so young,” Guardiola said ahead of the Arsenal game.
“Phil just needs – and for the age [he is], he will get it – the timing to play inside.
“When you play as a winger you have to play in one tempo, with one timing and one rhythm. When you play in the middle you have to play with another one.
“When he gets this balance, he will be 10 times the extraordinary player that he is right now. It’s just a question of time.”
Foden has four goals and two assists since the turn of the year in the Premier League, the same figures that can be attributed to Saka since Mikel Arteta selected him on the right wing for the Boxing Day clash against Chelsea.
Saka has featured at left-back, in both wing-back roles and centrally during Arteta’s tenure, but he got on the scoresheet in a dominant 3-1 derby victory and has not looked back.
“I see Bukayo evolving, getting better and getting to understand different positions and finally we will fit him in one that gives the best [result],” Arteta said back in July. It appears he has his answer.
Variety is the spice of life
Splitting Saka’s 21 Premier League appearances this season into centre, right or left positionally, Opta data shows he creates 1.1 chances per 90 minutes when on the right.
Both of his top-flight assists this term have come when starting on that flank, while an expected assists (xA) scored of 0.23 per 90 indicates a better quality of pass into danger areas when set against stints on the left or through the middle.
The 19-year-old, whose four England caps have come at left wing-back, is similarly effective dribbling on either flank, with 1.4 (left) and 1.5 (right) completed per match.
That figure rises to 3.1 when Saka has played through the middle this season, although two appearances and a solitary – albeit goalscoring – start in a central three versus Sheffield United skew his numbers to a degree.
Guardiola’s words this week suggest Foden will find himself back on the flanks at Emirates Stadium, but the City star’s feel for a goal comes to the fore when he plays through the middle.
In six Premier League games where he has operated centrally, his goals per game rate of 0.81 per 90 minutes and 2.4 dribbles completed per game are his highest across the three categories.
A shot conversion of 30 per cent also dwarfs his efforts from the left (11 per cent) but 2.5 chances created from open play per 90 in the latter role is perhaps the most significant statistic when it comes to explaining why he has made Leroy Sane’s old position his own.
Among Europe’s best
Saka and Foden each stack up very well when compared to the leading players under 21 throughout Europe. Indeed, no player within their age range has played more than Saka’s 2,317 minutes in all competitions across clubs in the big five leagues.
Foden (2,130) comes in sixth in that regard, while his 11 goals are third behind Moise Kean (16) and Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland (25). Saka’s six goals overall place him seventh.
Jadon Sancho (11) is the only under-21 player with more assists than Foden (six), while the City player’s 44 chances created from open play comes in second to the Dortmund winger – another handy illustration of the ample resources at Southgate’s disposal.
How he should deploy them will be relentlessly discussed before June, even if those arguments are now the preserve of Zoom calls rather than crowded pubs.
What increasingly appears beyond debate is that Foden and Saka have established ironclad cases for inclusion, having at best been outside punts a year ago.
Along with their dazzling array of skills, the versatility Guardiola and Arteta have used to their benefit could prove invaluable to Southgate amid the cut and thrust of tournament football.
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