Gareth Southgate praised Bukayo Saka for adding a ruthless edge to his game after the ever-improving star’s stunning goal in England’s Euro 2024 qualification win against Ukraine.
Three days on from the impressive 2-1 victory at Euro 2020 conquerors Italy, England continued their winning start to Group C in front of a sold-out Wembley crowd.
Before kick-off Harry Kane was presented with a commemorative golden boot for breaking England’s all-time scoring record in Naples and extended his tally to 55 goals with the opener against Ukraine.
Saka provided the assist and three minutes later curled home a superb 20-yard effort that completed a 2-0 win, leading Southgate to praise “the ruthless part he has added to his game in the last 18 months or so”.
“I just think when he’s in front of goal now he plays with real belief,” the England boss said. “That’s evident with his club and that’s evident in the games with us.
“You’re expecting him to score now when he goes through and I think that’s been a mentality shift as much as it’s anything technical.
“He’s always had the techniques, so I think he knows to be a really top wide player you need the numbers of goals and assists and he has, without a doubt, delivered that all season.”
Sunday’s strike was 21-year-old Arsenal forward’s eighth goal for England – a tally only Dixie Dean, Jimmy Greaves, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen bettered by his age.
“His hunger, his humility, are what’s got him on a good path,” Southgate said. “He has all the attributes to continue to improve and learn because that’s how he’s wired.
“I don’t see that changing with how he is and how his family are. He’s got great support around him.
“I’m not going to get drawn into where he sits in world football because that would then be starting to put him in danger of doing all the things that we shouldn’t be doing with him.
“He’s progressing brilliantly. He’s a joy to work with. We should leave it at that (rather than compare him to others).”
It was a comfortable end to a testing double-header that saw England deal with key absentees – including Phil Foden needing appendix surgery on the morning of the game.
“I think Italy wasn’t the perfect performance but we showed some really good qualities and some tremendous resilience to get the result through the last 15 minutes, in particular down to 10 men,” Southgate added.
“Today I thought was a really high-level performance with and without the ball for the entire game.
“We set that challenge beforehand, we set it again at half-time and the players were exceptional.
“They made a complicated game potentially look fairly straightforward and I was really pleased with what they did.”
Ukraine had not played a competitive match since September and interim head coach Ruslan Rotan is confident better is to come after their group opener ended in defeat.
“When you concede goals just before half-time, in fact two goals in the space of two minutes, it’s very difficult,” he said. “It makes your task incredibly hard.
“We knew who we were playing against, we knew the quality and the strength of the England team.
“But I can say that the Ukrainian boys deserve better. It’s a good team and it will progress better further down the road.”
Ukraine were roared on by a 4,200-strong away contingent at Wembley and more than 1,000 displaced Ukrainians and their host families were invited to the match as special guests of the Football Association.
Ahead of the game both sets of players posed with a Ukrainian flag that read ‘peace’ in a show of solidarity as the country continues to fight invading Russia.
Rotan said: “I want to thank all the Ukrainian supporters for an incredible wave of support that the team felt every minute of the game.
“I’m grateful for the England fans to support Ukraine as well because it was an atmosphere like no other atmosphere, like no other international game I’ve ever experienced.”