“In England, they talk about creative problems in midfield, but Jack Grealish brings that to the team. He deserves a shot.”
When an accomplished midfielder like Kevin De Bruyne talks glowly about the international qualities and qualifications of his counterpart, it is worth noting.
The game, as they say, defines the game.
The Manchester City player was speaking in the wake of England’s victory over Belgium in the Nations League last month – a match in which De Bruyne was involved, but Grealish did not, despite his superior in the previous friendly win over Wales.
During the past two seasons of the Premier League, the Aston Villa player has been a player who holds the ball, explores space and gives opportunity – all the things Gareth Southgate’s side has missed of late.
The next seven days will give him and England more opportunities to socialize, including matches against Belgium and Iceland.
First, though, she’s friendly with the Republic of Ireland – whom Grealish represented at under-21, courtesy of his Irish grandparents, and he would certainly have lined up with him had he not chosen instead to play for his country of birth.
Can the 25-year-old now make his way to Southgate senior team and prove himself as the future of England? Or is he destined to be the latest in a string of incredible talent that is held in greater esteem by the English public than by his national manager?
Grealish doesn’t have to do it all by himself.
Whether it was to help his club avoid relegation last season or push them to four wins out of four early this season, Grealish has certainly made a compelling case for England’s inclusion over the past fifteen months.
He made eight goals and six assists in the Premier League in the 2019-20 season and has four and five goals in a row in 2020-21, with his overall creativity and attacking stats better in the division.
As former England national team player Karen Carney told BBC Sport, the change in Greelish’s position, role and the best players around him, thanks to Villa’s improved summer recruitment strategy, only helped him advance his cause.
“He is now working on the left and going in,” said Carney. “I think number 10 is his best position but people are like him on the left because he can slip away defensively without being strong when he’s out of line.
“Last season he got a free role and a license, but he might have been a little bit disciplined at times in possession. This season I think he’s become more disciplined about that.
“It helps when you have better players around you and you don’t have to do it all alone. Olly Watkins stretches out to play and that creates space and in Ross Barkley he has a player he can partner with.”
These factors resulted in the change in his attacking production during the six matches this season, compared to last season.
|The number of shots per match||2.03||3.14|
|The number of shots per box per game||1.25||2.71|
|Chances are created for each game||2.53||2.71|
|Create great opportunities for every game||0.22||0.86|
|Touches in exchange. A box for each game||3.83||10|
|Passes vs. Half for each game||26.61||30.57|
|Quirks were attempted||3.75||4.86|
Greelish – Sterling and Rashford
Now regularly playing in a position that makes him a much more viable candidate in the favorite Southgate 3-4-3 formation with a defensive-minded midfield duo, Grealish faces two major obstacles blocking his way to the national team.
The first is that talented players with more experience working in wide attacking roles on the left for club and country have already grown up – the likes of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.
Sterling has scored 13 goals in 58 international matches and has been an integral part of the highly successful Manchester City side for more than five seasons, while Rashford continues to impress Manchester United and has scored in four of his past five matches for England.
“What doesn’t work for Jack is that he has a lot of good players ahead of him, and the formation doesn’t help him sometimes,” says Carney.
“If they played with two midfielders, you wouldn’t play with him because if he went and attacked and left someone isolated, he wouldn’t be that strong from a defensive standpoint. If you play on three points, he will face the likes of Mason Mount.
“If you play with him in the top three, he’s competing with Sancho, Rashford and Sterling … It’s really hard for him to break into the side.”
But there were encouraging words from Southgate after the team announced the upcoming matches, which clearly guaranteed Grealish as a striker.
“When I talked to him about the next level in his game, when he looked at the numbers that Stirling and Rashford have contributed to as players on a massive scale, he is now starting to do so,” said the England coach.
“I think that wasn’t necessarily the case at the end of last season. In the last two games in particular, the team didn’t do well, but against Southampton that day, I thought his contribution to the ball to the team was great. He will get better.”
“I think he continues to do that and he is advancing more and more in our player roster. I think he has to continue down this path. He is doing really well.”
|Shots in the box||19||10||11|
|Create great opportunities||6||2|
|Touches in exchange. Box||70||35||60|
“Be different with the things that make you different”
The second hurdle Grealish faces is his perception, whether fair or not, as a fancy player within a side – a player who enjoys the opportunity to get the ball at his feet but offers less when he doesn’t.
England has had a long and tumultuous history with midfielders stained with this reputation. The international careers of highly talented individuals such as Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne, Matt Le Tissier and Paul Scholes were affected by England’s failure to fully embrace their unique talents.
Could Grealish be the last to suffer?
“He’s a defector,” says Carney. “People think this is bad but I totally disagree. I’ve always had the saying, ‘Be different with the things that make you different.’
“Sometimes that can be a bit intimidating for some managers. I’m not saying Gareth Southgate is afraid of it but Grealish can be an anomaly. Sometimes I think difference causes you problems.”
How can he overcome such an obstacle?
“It’s about changing the mindset,” says Carney. “He has to change those perceptions inside the England camp by continuing to play the way he does. Southgate has to see that.
“No one ever questioned him regarding possession. I think the place he doesn’t get involved, or where he might struggle to get a look at the situation, are things outside his possession. I don’t think the risk versus reward is still there.”
“He can only change that by giving him the opportunity to show that he can do it. He has put his foot in the door now so he has to keep it there.”
“Villa didn’t have a problem with that, so why would England?”
Co-reporting by Emma Sanders.
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