Rueful Gareth Southgate reflects on Jack Grealish selection conundrum | England

Gareth Southgate is in the middle of an insightful answer about Jack Grealish’s first season at Manchester City when he stops, smiles and considers the irony of people questioning why the winger is in England’s squad for next month’s Nations League qualifiers. “It’s interesting that last summer I spent the whole summer getting hammered for not picking him,” Southgate says. “Now I’m being told I shouldn’t be picking him. But that’s my world.”

Such is life for the England manager, who realised a while ago there is no point trying to please everyone. Southgate cannot worry about outsiders criticising him for continuing to overlook Leicester’s James Maddison, who finished last season with 18 goals and 12 assists, and it is easy to understand the manager’s amusement at the doubts over Grealish given that most England supporters viewed him as a mandatory starter at Euro 2020.

Football moves on quickly. Twelve months ago, it was all about why Southgate was refusing to trust Grealish, who started once during England’s run to the final of the Euros. Now it is about whether the 26-year-old is worthy of a place in the squad after struggling to find his feet at City after his £100m move from Aston Villa.

It has not been easy for Grealish to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s style. He finished the campaign with six goals and four assists in all competitions and did not start many of City’s biggest games. It felt like a bad fit at times. Grealish was the main man at Aston Villa, the undisputed star, but at City he is just another cog in Guardiola’s machine.

“It’s probably adapting to playing in a dressing room where there’s great players all around you,” Southgate says. “There’s a psychological part to that for anybody. He’s a humble lad, Jack. He’s confident enough to take the ball but he’s got humility.”

Jack Grealish on the ball for England against the Czech Republic during Euro 2020
Jack Grealish on the ball for England against the Czech Republic during Euro 2020. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

There has been a clear reluctance from Grealish to drive with the ball and run at defenders. After dazzling for Villa it suddenly appeared his main attribute was checking back and playing a safe pass to João Cancelo. The wit and invention were nowhere to be seen.

Grealish’s football felt tame and his role in City’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Real Madrid seemed to sum up his luck, two astonishing interventions from Ferland Mendy and Thibaut Courtois denying him the goal that surely would have taken City into the final against Liverpool.

Grealish would go on to leave his mark on City’s season. He embraced the challenge when they were 2-0 down at half-time against West Ham in their penultimate game, his goal at the start of the second half kickstarting a comeback that helped the champions earn a crucial point.

“Once I’d scored I was: ‘Come on, give me the ball,’ and I was running at people, trying to create things,” Grealish said after City sealed the title by beating Villa last Sunday. “I felt like myself.”

Southgate, who could not help but laugh at Grealish’s exuberant celebrations after City won the Premier League, took note of those comments. “He spoke from the heart, didn’t he?” he said. “And that was apparent to everybody: to adapt to a totally different way of playing, to adapt to different expectations where you have to win every week, where there is that competition for places.

“He’s a very good player. We’re blessed that we have a lot of very good players. I imagine there would have been some anxiety about going there and not winning a trophy. He’s now done that so I’m sure he’ll feel a little bit calmer.”

Southgate argues that Grealish is becoming a more rounded player. “He’s learned a lot positionally,” he says. “His work without the ball has improved. At Villa it was quite unique, he was the one who gave them hope and had total freedom.

“If you’d said to me he’s not going to score 20 goals this year, well, I wouldn’t have expected that. He’s the one who likes to be the provider, the one who might play the pass before the assist. Whether he adds getting on the far post, like Raheem [Sterling] has done over a number of seasons, maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But I don’t know if that’s how he’s wired. He gets as much enjoyment out of creating as he does scoring.”

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The challenge for Southgate is to coax that ingenuity out of Grealish when England face Hungary on Saturday and then Germany, Italy and Hungary again in their Nations League group. The tactic, though, will never simply be “give the ball to Jack”.

Southgate also has Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Sterling and Jarrod Bowen to pick from in attack. There is no pressure on Grealish to be the talisman and his education at City could suit England. They have always been about the collective under Southgate and that is not going to change before the World Cup.

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