The debate around Jack Grealish is a quintessentially English one. Once every generation, the country tends to produce a player who plays the game that little bit differently. A player who doesn’t necessarily fit a system, but makes things happen. Before Grealish, it was Paul Scholes. Before that, most notably, it was Paul Gascoigne.
Gareth Southgate’s recent comments have only added to the sense England is once again overlooking a talent who would be embraced by any other footballing nation, shaping the choice as one between the mercurial magic of Grealish and the pressing and energy of Mason Mount.
It was therefore noteworthy that both Grealish and Mount were handed starting places for Sunday’s UEFA Nations League match against Belgium. Injuries to Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling somewhat forced Southgate’s hand, but this was an opportunity for the pair to show there needn't be a choice between one or the other.
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Belgium’s comfortable 2-0 victory, and the way the game panned out over the 90 minutes, only served to underline how the discussion around Grealish and Mount, and all the tangents attached to that discussion, threatens to define Southgate’s tenure as England manager.
Jack Grealish carries the ball past Kevin De Bruyne
Image credit: Getty Images
Grealish played well. He was England’s best player, particularly in the second half when he took it upon himself to try and break through a deep-lying Belgian defence. But this was a match that illustrated how Southgate still struggles to balance the undeniable talent he possesses in his squad.
With no Rashford and Sterling, and Jadon Sancho on the bench, a lack of pace was evident in the first 45 minutes, yet it was Harry Winks who was introduced at half-time. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder helped to give England more control in the second period, but the fundamental issue remained - the visitors couldn’t get in behind.
Sancho was introduced with 20 minutes left, but his positioning when he was on the pitch puzzled. Southgate named no fewer than five right backs to his squad for the games against Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Iceland, but ended up playing Sancho there on Sunday evening.
This provided a microcosm of England’s problems under Southgate. The talent is there, but the system and understanding of how to make the most of that isn’t. Sunday’s game might have been a different story had Rashford and Sterling flanked Harry Kane, giving England runners when the skipper drops deep, but without them England carried little threat.
Of course, Belgium inflicted two defeats on England at the 2018 World Cup and so this match offered Southgate with something of a yardstick to measure how far his team has come since then. On this basis, though, England are just as limited as they were two years ago, but that is no longer down to their personnel.
In 2018, Southgate lacked creators to impose England’s game on opposition sides. Now, he has a number of different options. Grealish. Mount. Phil Foden. James Maddison. England no longer have to play like they did at the 2018 World Cup, and to Southgate’s credit he appears to recognise this. He just doesn’t have a notion of how to implement change.
To look on the bright side of Sunday’s defeat in Leuven for England, Grealish has surely done enough to keep his place in the squad for the time being. The 25-year-old has had to do more than most to convince Southgate of his ability, perhaps due to the fact Grealish didn’t come through the FA's youth pipeline the England boss values so much, but he is now becoming impossible to ignore.
There will be more questions after this, even if the performance wasn’t necessarily a bad one. A player like Grealish should be one of the final pieces of the puzzle for England, but he is starting to look like the player to expose Southgate’s inability to put all the pieces together.