Gareth Southgate and Jack Grealish are both former Aston Villa captains but the similarities seem to end there. They are the paragon of responsibility and the free spirit, the prefect and the rebel, the man who measures every comment carefully and the carefree character whose lifestyle can attract attention.
Listen to Grealish, however, and they sound the unlikely alliance. “I’m not just saying this, I have a great relationship with him,” said the Manchester City midfielder. “I’m not too sure how many caps I’ve actually got for England football team and they have all been under him.” The number is 23, but the criticisms are that Southgate was too slow to call up Grealish and too reluctant to start him; 11 of those appearances have come off the bench. “I’ve come on a lot as a sub during the Euros,” Grealish said. “Obviously, I would love to play every game but it’s a big squad with top players all over so if that was my role then that’s fine. I’ll do whatever I can to help the team.”
Grealish may have lost his reptutation as the people’s champion since his £100m move to City, but he remains the face of a broader question: if Southgate is too reluctant to trust in attacking talent. He is accused of being the roundhead in charge of cavaliers, the manager who ignores Grealish’s friend James Maddison and who opted not to recall Jadon Sancho.
Southgate’s seeming preference for 3-4-3 instead of 4-2-3-1 removes an attack-minded player for an extra centre-back. Grealish may suffer as a result of a choice that reduces his chances of selection but is leading the case for the defence.
“I don’t think he is too negative or cautious at all,” he said. “Especially if you’re on about when he plays five at the back, people always go on about how good our wing-backs are so I don’t see why you wouldn’t try that. I think we have great talent all over the pitch, whether that be at full-back, centre midfield or us wide players.”
Are Southgate’s England defensive or deadly? His record lends itself to different conclusions. His England scored 38 goals in 2019, their most in a calendar year since 1908. Harry Kane has won a World Cup Golden Boot in his reign and is poised to break Wayne Rooney’s national scoring record. And while 4-0 thrashings are rare in the quarter-finals of European Championships, England hammered Ukraine last year.
Yet four June games produced a solitary goal, and even that was a Kane penalty. Harry Maguire is the third-highest scorer in the current squad and while Kane and Raheem Sterling have 62 goals between them for Southgate, the rest of the band of attacking midfielders and wingers have been less prolific, sometimes because they are confined to cameos and in and out of the side.
Grealish’s tally of one goal in 23 caps feels unflattering, while Mason Mount’s four in 31 and Phil Foden’s two in 16 also compare unfavourably to their returns in club colours. The other issue is when those goals come. England have a healthy 23 in tournament football under Southgate. Take away Kane’s 10 and Sterling’s three and the other 10 feel instructive: one was an own goal, one a header from a defensive midfielder, Jordan Henderson, from a set-piece and six – two apiece for John Stones and Maguire, one each for Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw – came from defenders, with only a World Cup strike for Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli from the band of attacking midfielders; now Alli’s England career seems long gone while Lingard is not in the current squad. England feel fortunate in the number of gifted players who have emerged in recent years but their reliance on the old firm of Kane and Sterling for important goals has remained.
If the Euro 2020 final opener, created by Trippier and scored by Shaw, underlined Grealish’s argument about the potency of the wing-backs, it supported the theory Southgate is a smart strategist, not a great adventurer. Shaw was England’s most creative player in Euro 2020, with three assists, while Trippier was the set-piece star in 2018. Grealish’s role last summer was as plan B; perhaps, if he, Mount, Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jarrod Bowen and, when fit, Marcus Rashford are competing for a solitary place alongside Kane and Sterling, it may be his status at the World Cup as well.
“I know what impact I can bring from the bench,” Grealish said. “I started one game in the Euros and got an assist, which I was over the moon about. The manager’s the manager.” The support of a wildly different figure felt welcome after the toughest time of Southgate’s spell in charge of England. Grealish has won Southgate over to a certain extent but perhaps does not expect the manager to unleash him as a starter too often.