Known to pundits everywhere as a man “who makes things happen,” Jack Grealish helped make England Group D winners, with a cute chip to Raheem Sterling for England’s only goal. His reward could be a chance to test himself against a superpower in a Round of 16 game that could announce his talent to a wider world.
In this restorative 1-0 win over the Czech Republic, England made use of Grealish, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham, Marcus Rashford and finally Jadon Sancho, for seven minutes. Of the young attacking guns, only Phil Foden (rested) and Mason Mount missed out. Mount’s penalty for chatting to Billy Gilmour for too long after the Scotland game was a spell in isolation. Grealish has run into his own problems with bubble breaches, but this time Covid opened the door to the darling of the Wembley crowd.
With all the forward talent summoned in this game, it strikes a bum note that Raheem Sterling is the only man to score for England in this competition. Two goals in three games is a modest return. But consider those seven points, the top place finish in the group and the potential for England to score more if they commit to playing at a high tempo in both halves, rather than sporadically.
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“We’re still improving, we’re difficult to play against us, there’s more to come from us,” said Southgate, who, tellingly, drew on his squad depth here because he saw signs against Croatia and Scotland that reinforcements will be needed in the knockout rounds.
Paul Gascoigne in 1990 and Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004 were the benchmarks mentioned by Gary Neville before this game as Grealish made his first tournament start. Neville wasn’t holding back with those comparisons. Those lofty judgments will have to wait until Grealish is trying to dance through a French, Italian or German midfield, but this was his first major ‘statement’ at tournament level. He showed he’s able to bring his natural inclinations to ‘pressure’ games and respect the needs of the team and a gameplan.
England fans already adore him and were restive when he gave way after 67 minutes to Bellingham. Grealish’s shin problems may explain Southgate’s decision to take him off. Harry Kane was livelier in his third attempt to recall his best club form but looks no closer to scoring. In that scenario, Grealish’s unhurried ingenuity around the opposition’s penalty box becomes more valuable, creating space and opportunities for other forwards.
Grealish impressed after being handed a start
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Earlier this week a French colleague called to ask about the supposed disdain for ‘mavericks’ in Grealish’s homeland. Was Gareth Southgate suspicious in some way of Aston Villa’s playmaker? Was he heading down the same path as Glenn Hoddle and other ‘underused’ artistes? Southgate has no intrinsic mistrust of creative players. But the time it took for Grealish to make his breakthrough showed the England manager had reservations about elements of his game. Many experts do.
The onus was on him to show he could impose his talent from the start, not just as an eye-catching sub. A ‘showreel’ player he clearly isn’t. His movement, cunning, energy, positional awareness and defensive discipline were all impressive and his soft looping cross to the far post for Sterling’s header alone justified his selection.
He was upended a few times but was less inclined to go looking for contact to ‘win’ fouls. That will be a vital change at this level. Free-kicks on the edge of the box are valuable commodities but the world’s best players in Grealish’s position don’t go looking to hit the deck as often as he does at Aston Villa. Against the Czechs, Grealish seemed to acknowledge that there’s no need for him to stop his own momentum. And Southgate will have urged him to stay on his feet as often as he can.
England’s first-half performance was more convincing than their second-half work, when they slipped into consolidation mode. Despite winning comfortably they recorded only two shots on target. It could be a sign of confidence that they play so often within themselves. But it makes their followers twitchy. A more consistent level of application will be needed against the best teams in the tournament. More goals and enterprise will be required if they are to become European champions.
Reassuringly, Saka was told by Southgate to play boldly the way he does for Arsenal and he too, delivered, punching holes in the Czech Republic’s left side. “He earned that chance tonight and he took it. He was fabulous,” Southgate said. Saka was at his best in the outside-right position. Sancho didn’t have time to parade his gifts but at least he, too, is in from the margins.
It was a striking feature of Grealish’s first big England start that he popped up at various points at outside left, No 10, outside right and central midfield, in front of the back-four. There are few parts of a football pitch where he’s reluctant to go and he isn’t afraid of the ‘Gazza’ analogies either.
Southgate was under pressure to start him before this tournament started and the clamour has only increased. The debate is now simplified, whatever happens with Mount, who is also a front-rank player. Nobody could doubt that Grealish belongs at this level, on this stage, where his idol Gascoigne left such an indelible impression.
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