“In England, they talk about creative problems in midfield, but Jack Grealish brings that to a team. He deserves a shot.”
When a midfield player as accomplished as Kevin de Bruyne speaks glowingly about the qualities and international credentials of a peer, it is worth paying attention.
Game, as they say, recognises game.
The Manchester City player was speaking in the aftermath of England’s Nations League win over Belgium last month – a game in which De Bruyne featured, but Grealish did not, despite having excelled in the preceding friendly victory over Wales.
During the past two Premier League seasons, the Aston Villa player has been a ball-carrying, space-finding, chance-providing machine – all things that Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions side have lacked of late.
The coming seven days provide him and England with further opportunities to get acquainted, including games against Belgium and Iceland.
First up, though, is a friendly with the Republic of Ireland – whom Grealish represented at under-21 level, courtesy of his Irish grandparents, and would surely have been lining up for had he not opted instead to play for the country of his birth.
So can the 25-year-old now force his way into Southgate’s senior side and establish himself as England’s future? Or is he destined to be the latest in a line of prodigious talents more appreciated by the English public than his national manager?
Grealish ‘doesn’t have to do it all himself’
Whether it be helping his club avoid relegation last season or driving them on to four wins out of four at the start of this campaign, Grealish has certainly put forward a compelling case for England inclusion over the past 15 months.
He provided a club-high eight goals and six assists in the Premier League in 2019-20 and has four and five respectively already in 2020-21, during which his overall creativity and attacking stats are up there with the best in the division.
As former England international Karen Carney told BBC Sport, a change in Grealish’s club position and role and better players around him, courtesy of Villa’s improved summer recruitment strategy, have only helped him further strengthen his case.
“He now operates on the left and coming inside,” said Carney. “I think 10 is his best position but people like him on the left because defensively he can get away with not being as strong when he’s out wide.
“Last season he was given a free role and a licence but was perhaps a little ill-disciplined at times in possession. This season I think he has become even more disciplined in that regard.
“It helps when you have better players around you and you don’t have to do everything by yourself. Ollie Watkins stretches play and that creates space and in Ross Barkley he has a player he can form partnerships with.”
Such factors are born out in the change in his attacking output over the six games of this season, in comparison to last.
|Shots per game||2.03||3.14|
|Shots in box per game||1.25||2.71|
|Chances created per game||2.53||2.71|
|Big chances created per game||0.22||0.86|
|Touches in opp. box per game||3.83||10|
|Passes in opp. half per game||26.61||30.57|
Grealish v Sterling and Rashford
Now regularly playing in a position that makes him a more viable candidate within Southgate’s favoured 3-4-3 formation with a defence-minded central midfield duo, Grealish has two major obstacles blocking his path to the national side.
The first is that highly-talented players with more experience of operating in wide attacking roles on the left for club and country are already established – the likes of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford.
Sterling has 13 goals in 58 caps and has been an integral part of a highly successful Manchester City side for over five seasons, while Rashford continues to impress for Manchester United and has netted in four of his past five England games.
“What doesn’t go in Jack’s favour is that he has a lot of good players in front of him and the formation at times doesn’t help him,” says Carney.
“If they play with two midfielders, you won’t play him because if he goes and attacks and leaves someone isolated then defensively he is not that strong. If you play in a three, he is up against the likes of Mason Mount.
“If you play him in the front three, he is competing with Sancho, Rashford, Sterling… It’s really difficult for him to break into the side.”
But there were encouraging words from Southgate following the announcement of the squad for the upcoming games, which tellingly included Grealish as a forward.
“When I’ve talked to him about the next level for his game, when he looks at the numbers that Sterling and Rashford as wide players have contributed, he’s now starting to do that,” said the England boss.
“I think that wasn’t necessarily the case at the end of last season. In the last couple of games in particular the team haven’t done so well, but against Southampton the other day I thought his contribution with the ball for the team was outstanding. He’s going to get better.
“I think he’s continuing to do that and he’s moving further and further up our list of players. I think he’s got to just keep on that trajectory. He’s doing really well.”
|Shots in box||19||10||11|
|Big chances created||6||0||2|
|Touches in opp. box||70||35||60|
‘Be the difference with the things that make you different’
Grealish’s second obstacle is the perception of him, fair or not, as something of a luxury player within a side – one that relishes the opportunity to have the ball at his feet but offers less when he does not.
England have a long and troubled history with midfield players tarnished with such a reputation. The international careers of supremely talented individuals such as Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne, Matt le Tissier and Paul Scholes were all impacted by England’s failure to fully embrace their unique talent.
Could Grealish be the latest to suffer?
“He is a maverick,” says Carney. “People think that is a bad thing but I totally disagree. I always had the saying of ‘be the difference with the things that make you different’.
“Sometimes that can be a bit scary for some managers. I’m not saying Gareth Southgate is scared by that but Grealish can be an anomaly. And I do think at times being different causes you issues.”
So how does he overcome such a hurdle?
“It is about changing the mindset,” adds Carney. “He has to change those perceptions within the England camp by continuing to play the way he is doing. Southgate has to get to see that.
“Nobody has ever questioned him in possession. I think where he is not getting into the side, or where he might struggle to get a look-in, is his out-of-possession stuff. I don’t think the risk versus reward is there yet.
“He can only change that by being given the opportunity to show he can do it. He has got his foot in the door now so he has to keep it in there.
“Villa have never had a problem with it so why would England?”
Additional reporting by Emma Sanders.