Jack Grealish and the struggle of the English maestro

“Football is a game of deception” – Diego Maradona

As Jack Grealish returned to the Aston Villa side against Spurs he produced a performance that made all remember how good he actually is – 70 touches, 41 passes completed, four chances created, three tackles won and three shots. These are not the stats of a player who can be left out of the Euros squad. And yet that may be exactly what happens.

As Gareth Southgate watched on, it appears that Grealish might have returned too late to be included in his squad for the summer. And if he does go, he will be far from the first name on the team sheet. But why would such a supremely talented player not be in the English manager’s plans?

Jack the lad

Off the field, Grealish’s antics have been questionable. Breaking lockdown regulations and a very suspicious incident involving a Range Rover is only the tip of the iceberg. What would he be like in a tournament environment, especially if he is not starting? These are the kind of questions Southgate must be asking himself.

Grealish recently declared an admiration for George Best on social media, and like Best, he is prone to misdemeanors, but when he’s on his game no one can touch him. On the pitch, he always comes across a mentally prepared. The fortitude to come back and score after being punched by a Birmingham City fan being the standout example.

Another quality of Best was that he was never physically intimidated. Grealish is the same, he is a player with a swagger, personality, and a steel heart. The mark of a good manager should be to get the most out of a player with these qualities.

Style of play

Jack Grealish is a player who can totally dominate the ball. The most fouled player last season and again this campaign, and, perhaps more telling is that he is top of the league when it comes to touches in the opposition’s box.

With a team so reliant on the set-piece as England, it should seem like common sense to have a player in the team who can draw those fouls in and around the opposition box.

Grealish jinks and slips like an eel at times as the ball glues itself to his feet, fluency and panache with balletic twists and turns that force defenders into chopping him down. He has all the traits of a street footballer – tight control, excellent vision, and an ability to withstand the most physical of encounters. He is a player who is a joy to watch.

We often hear of bravery regarded as a defender who puts his body on the line to block a shot like John Terry, but bravery can also mean taking on the ball when a goal down and sparking a performance into life. And Grealish has the charisma and confidence to do so. Being captain at Villa at such an early age he has shown his ability to lead on the field. The best leaders always do so by example.

The only weakness in his game is the lack of goals. He is more of a facilitator with 43 chances created, the most of any player this season. So much for the criticism that he holds onto the ball too long.

Southgate’s plans

I know Villa play him as an 8 but I don’t see him in that role for us.

– Gareth Southgate

Southgate leaving out Trent Alexander Arnold is an early indication of how he intends to play this summer – without the ball.

Trent, however, has had the time to prove the manager wrong. And even got in a Gladiator reference to boot in response to the decision. Not something that will have impressed Southgate. But over recent weeks the right-back has proved his worth in a resurgent Liverpool side.

Trent’s recent omission also gives us an insight into England’s tactics for the Euros. Southgate is not intending to reinvent the wheel with England. The international game is generally more basic due to the manager’s lack of time with the payers.

Portugal’s reductive game plan that saw them win the euros, and Deschamps reliance on Kylian Mpabbe as a counter-attacking battering ram won France a World Cup. Olivier Giroud didn’t score a single goal as the main striker. Pragmatism does win tournaments.

Southgate sees the counterattack as his main weapon. The Nations League game against Spain where several blistering counters burnt through the aged Spanish defence being the archetype performance.

But it speaks to the English football psyche that Foden and Grealish cannot feature as the tip of a diamond in midfield. Players as talented on the ball as anything that Spain or Germany will have on offer. A conservative counterattacking style that relies on areal dominance is the plan. It may bear fruit for England. Though it just seems like such a waste with the talent available.

Tournament heat

He stood up to as tough an opponent as you can face.

– Gareth Southgate

His performance against Belgium in the Nations League showed that he is comfortable at an international level, if there was ever even a doubt he would be. “He had an outstanding game”  Southgate said, before adding “Jack has really impressed us with his approach”. These comments could prove to be lip service for the football public though.

With Rashford’s form flailing in recent months it would seem like an obvious choice to stick Grealish on the left-wing. He has a faster turn of pace than he is given credit for, who isn’t jealous of those humungous calves after all, and a killer final ball to deliver to Kane.

Rashford though will be playing the Son role for Harry Kane who we might see drop deeper into a creating role as he did for Spurs during the season. We could even see a midfield of Kalvin Philips, Declan Rice and Mount at the tip in this scenario.

To leave a talent like Grealish out seems like a waste, but it appears inconsequential to Southgate who has Mount, Foden and Jesse Lingard to count on.

Foden has shown an ability to play on either wing for Manchester City. And Mount has been totally dynamic all season under Lampard and Tuchel. If he does make it in the squad the best he can hope for is a start against Scotland, where England should dominate the ball.

The Maestro

If there is a player who can provide a creative spark in a big game it’s Grealish. He could play as an eight if requested and would be more than capable, he even sees it as his own preferred position.

Grealish is as spontaneous as his haircut suggests but Southgate wants a short, back, and sides man. Whether he is included or not, Southgate is woe betide to use him.

English eyes have now switched to the new golden boy Phil Foden. Rightly so as he has lit up the league in recent months, and he could go to the Euros as a champions league winner. The chance for Grealish however, to light up the European Championship might have been taken from due to nothing more than fear from his international manager.

From a playing point of view, Grealish would have been better off sticking with Ireland as the team would have been built around him. But with England, the Villa captain, like all mercurial talents, is a victim of conservatism.

Even if he makes the squad for the upcoming Euros it would seem he is destined for a minor role. Such a pity for a mercurial maestro such as he. If Southgate wanted to think outside the box this summer, he should turn to the man with the most touches inside it.

The Author

John McMahon

Sportswriter and self-proclaimed football boot aficionado. John McMahon hails from Co. Laois and covers domestic and European football.

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