Gareth Southgate has been required to find the right words at the right time an awful lot recently. An hour before kick-off in Leuven, he did it again.
‘We’re looking forward to seeing him play,’ England’s manager said, as he discussed the prospect of Jack Grealish’s first competitive appearance. ‘It’s good to see him against top level opponents. We are confident he can play well. We want him to do what he’s doing at his club.’
It was good to hear Southgate speak with enthusiasm about the Aston Villa midfielder. Grealish has been a recurring theme over the course of three international camps but mention of his name has not always been greeted with warmth.
Jack Grealish sent a huge message to Gareth Southgate after impressing against Belgium
The midfielder was England’s standout performer and the highlight of their 2-0 defeat
In September, Southgate was asked about Grealish’s initial absence from his squad and made it clear he had plenty to do to win him over. After an uplifting night against Wales at Wembley in October, the 50-year-old poured cold water on the idea Grealish could be this team’s Paul Gascoigne.
Even last week, before the Republic of Ireland friendly, Southgate pointed out that towards the end of last season – when Grealish was hailed as Aston Villa’s talisman – he had only contributed one goal in 22 appearances. Talent is good but, in international football, end product is decisive.
Grealish, however, has never flinched. He’s listened to the debates, taken any criticisms on board and his form for Villa has been outstanding. Once Raheem Sterling was ruled out of this Nations League fixture with a minor injury, he had to be given his chance. To overlook him would have been grossly unfair.
Grealish has continually taken on criticism and stepped up after injury to Raheem Sterling
‘He’s getting used to the system we play (but) the players have great trust in him,’ Southgate added. ‘We don’t want to put too much pressure on him but he loves these types of games and he will love this occasion.’
He certainly did. There is something about watching Grealish that allows you to easily remember the innocence and the joy of the game; he plays with freedom, with enthusiasm bursting out of him. Even in an empty stadium, his mind was filled with wonderful possibilities.
Things, it must be said, started slowly – in more ways than one. The first time Grealish got sight of the ball, in the fourth minute, he ended up being plunged into the playing surface following a rather crude challenge from Belgium central defender Jason Denayer.
Southgate will have surely been won over after Grealish produced a dazzling performance
For much of the opening 45 minutes, it seemed too pedestrian. Grealish was on the periphery rather than being right in the centre of things. It wasn’t for the lack of trying. It was simply down to the fact that England’s play was too conservative.
This is something Southgate must tweak going forward. He is committed to playing 3-4-3 and it will be his system in the European Championships but when you have seven defensive-minded players on the pitch, it asks an awful lot of the three attackers.
Along with Mason Mount and Harry Kane, Grealish was too often isolated. He got close to a goal in the 11th minute, when dashing in to meet a cross from Kieran Trippier, but Toby Alderweireled put a foot in the way at just the right time.
There was a cross for Mount following a moment of industry from Kane that almost created an opening, while another route to goal was stopped by a back heel from Jan Vertonghen. As Belgium dashed into a two-goal lead, you wondered whether he would see the game out.
He has been in superb form for Aston Villa but the challenge was to translate that to England
We have seen it happen with England before in the past. Players who have waited for opportunities struggle in their first big audition and then, before you know it, they are out of the system and never to be seen again. We really don’t want this fate to befall Grealish.
What we want to see is if he can really translate his club form to the highest stage. Thankfully, in the next 45 minutes, we were given a proper insight that, yes, he will not be out of place. There is a reason why Grealish’s talents are described by team-mates as ‘special’ and here was a thrilling glimpse.
Doing it against a Wales team, in a friendly, that had been decimated by injuries was completely different to shining against Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team, but there was no doubt that Grealish provided the undisputed highlight from this defeat.
You could see how he started to grow in confidence, how he could make those little moves with his feet in the way a hustler on the street plays with cups and ball – now you see it, now you don’t – and he started to wrap Belgium’s defence up in knots.
Belgium defender Thomas Meunier will testify that Grealish is a dangerous option for England
Southgate will be watching over Grealish in future but is starting to trust him on the big stage
Thomas Meunier, for one, will testify that Grealish has all the tools. He spent much of the second period being turned inside out by his flicks and tricks. He demanded the ball – whisper it quietly – in the way Gascoigne once did, backing into his marker then spinning away.
The best moment, without doubt, was the back heel flick in the 78th minute that had Meunier looking like he had been pickpocketed. What a shame, then, his efforts did not lead to a fightback as he and his team deserved a goal.
‘A fantastic player,’ Kane said at the final whistle. ‘It was great to be on the pitch with him.’
The result was disappointing yet all was not lost. At one point, Southgate beckoned him over and said: ‘Come on… keep it going.’ You suspect, at long last, he has won him over. There will be other opportunities in the future. We can say that with certainty.