International weeks always produce talking points and this one has been no different.
From the moment Chris Sutton and Micah Richards hook up to discuss England’s 3-0 dismissal of Wales, the debate between the pair never relents.
From Jack Grealish dazzling to what happens against Belgium, the Sportsmail pundits were in feisty form. Dominic King and Kieran Gill listened in.
After England beat Wales 3-0 on Thursday, Micah Richards and Chris Sutton linked-up to chat
Richards and Sutton have historically had differing views over Jack Grealish, star man at Wembley on Thursday. Mention of his name sets the pair off.
Richards: Oh! Oh! Look at you! Are you ready to jump on the bandwagon now, sir?!
Sutton: Hang on a minute! I’ve never said Grealish is a bad player! I love Grealish!
Richards: I want to find the clip where you said, ‘Oh, he’s not all that! He’s not James Maddison! He’s only done it in the Championship!’ You know what you are like when you go on these little rants of yours.
I told you, Christopher. I told you! He is a top Premier League player. When he plays with better players, it lifts him. Imagine if he was at Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City or Arsenal…
Jack Grealish was one of the brightest sparks on the night, assisting Calvert-Lewin’s opener
Sutton (deadpan): But they didn’t want him, did they? Were there questions about his temperament and his attitude?
Richards: I wouldn’t say his attitude. I would just say how he has handled himself off the field. He has always been a professional. Whatever Jack was doing off the field, as a youngster, he was always at the front of the line when it came to running, technique, passing.
Nothing ever affected him. That’s when I knew there was never a problem in terms of his social life.
Sutton: Gareth Southgate isn’t someone who would cut off his nose to spite his face. Grealish has had to prove himself and his performance against Wales was big. It is very difficult to read too much into the game as it was against Wales and they were not at full strength.
But Grealish was the one player who, I thought, really stood out and had that quality. He has now nailed down his place in the squad. I know we have had laughs over who is better, Maddison or Grealish, but Grealish has done enough now to be a regular in the squad at least.
Grealish has done enough for England to convince a once sceptical Chris Sutton of his ability
The next question is can he push himself ahead of the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling. Gareth doesn’t want to play him in a central area as far as I can see. He has earned the right to really challenge. These players should be looking over their shoulders now.
Richards: I totally agree. It’s difficult for Jack because a lot of teams don’t play with a No 10 now. I like him. When Aston Villa beat Liverpool last week, he spent so much time hogging that left side. He says he wants to play central but I think it actually suits him better on the left.
Sometimes, that No 10 position is actually harder, in terms of how you receive the ball. International football is often 11 men behind the ball and you often get more space out wide. Look at his assist.
The Aston Villa skipper has hit the ground running this season in the Premier League as well
He faces one, faces two and then he whips the cross in. If you are in that No 10 position, I don’t think he would get the time to do that.
Rashford has not done anything wrong for England, he’s been superb. Sterling has done well, Kane and Sancho… although Sancho, in the last round of games, didn’t do that great. It just depends if the manager is going to pick on the name or on the form. There is no one better on form right now than Jack Grealish.
Sutton: Where is his favourite position? Where does he want to play?
Richards: Anywhere across the front but when I see him play as No 8, he drops too deep. He gets frustrated when he is not on the ball. He feels like he is useless.
I like him on the left, where he starts for Villa and comes inside. He works hard defensively but he doesn’t sometimes see the danger. He is an offensive player. Anywhere across the front for me.
Richards believes the Aston Villa star needs to be at the heart of the action deeper in midfield
Grealish was man of the match but Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s debut goal, to continue his brilliant start to the season, was also timely. Is he now a credible challenger to Harry Kane?
Sutton: Calvert-Lewin has been fantastic. Saying that, you could have scored that goal Micah… But Calvert-Lewin looks strong, he’s at ease with his game.
If you had asked me a couple of months ago if he’d be in serious contention to play for England, pushing Harry Kane, I’d have said absolutely not.
Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the opener for England after 26 minutes against Wales
But he is scoring goals, playing well for Everton. Gareth now has a really good headache. This might even push Harry Kane on a bit.
Kane has been a centre forward for England without a challenger. If Calvert-Lewin carries this on, then he is a serious challenger.
Richards: There had been too much reliance on Kane to play well. Let’s not forget about him: when there is pressure on you, you raise your game. He’s been outstanding for Spurs. It can only be positive for England.
The striker’s incredible form for Everton has seen him bag Premier League player of the month
A case for the defence
Southgate is going to press on with playing 3-4-3 as he plots his way towards next summer’s European Championship. But does the system truly work?
Richards: I don’t feel England are comfortable enough to do that. They don’t know their positions well enough yet. They are playing a three, when for their clubs they are most used to playing in a four. I worked with Roberto Martinez over the summer; he plays a similar formation with Belgium.
England are trying to do it (play out from the back with short passes) because they want to get the opposition to engage and then they can play through the lines. It might look ridiculous to us and you think to yourself, ‘What are you doing!’ but if you kick it straight up, the team are pretty much set.
If you get them unbalanced with those passes to start off, movement can get through the lines. It forces the team out and makes them engage. But England aren’t ready to do it yet. You have to be confident and want to keep doing it even when it doesn’t work.
Gareth Southgate has an impressive generation of English talent to pick from for Euro 2021
Sutton: Do you think Southgate knows the system he wants to use next summer? Or is he still experimenting?
Richards: I think he’s still waiting to see. If we ask each other, ‘What’s England’s best back four?’ We’d all have different back fours. Tyrone Mings? Harry Maguire? He hasn’t let England down. Joe Gomez would have to play, wouldn’t he? Left back — Ben Chilwell?
Do you go defensive and have Aaron Wan-Bissaka? Or get experience with Kyle Walker? But Trent Alexander-Arnold is the best right back in the Premier League! The manager has so many options and has to fit all these pieces together. All the defenders are at similar levels, Southgate is trying to find out who can do what.
Sutton: So who would your back three be?
Harry Maguire (right) stayed on the bench for the whole game and has had a rocky 2020
Richards: Mings, because he’s left-footed and coming out with the ball is easier when you’re left-footed. Gomez on the right. Then it’s a toss-up between Maguire and Connor Coady. In the last World Cup, Maguire was like a national hero. But his form for Man United hasn’t been good enough.
Coady plays in that system every week for Wolves. He knows it better, his diagonal passes are better than anyone else in that squad, but he’s not had the experience of playing like Maguire in a tournament. That’s why I wouldn’t know which way to go. But Gomez and Mings are definitely in it.
Sutton: But you’re the manager now, so pick one! I’m with you on Mings, I’m with you on Gomez, and I’ll go with Maguire.
Richards (grimacing): I’ll agree with you — even though I don’t want to! — just because of his experience. But if he has a bad game, I’ll put Coady straight in.
Richards and Sutton are hesitant over Maguire and see Conor Coady as a close challenger
Sutton: You wouldn’t give him another chance? You’re heartless.
Richards: This is a tournament! You don’t get a second chance! We’re out of the tournament if we lose the next game! We can’t afford to be caring about his feelings!
Talk of defensive options sees the conversation turn players who are out of the squad. Will there be a way back in for Manchester City’s John Stones?
Richards: Football waits for no man. We know that. There’s always someone ready to take your place. I do believe Stones can still get back into the squad. I don’t think it’s all she wrote for John Stones. He’s going to have to go on loan and find somewhere in January.
Sutton: If Southgate’s playing this system, 3-4-3, he’ll want two defensive-minded players to shield the back line. Who would you play alongside Jordan Henderson? Let’s talk candidates. Harry Winks? Kalvin Phillips?
John Stones was one an England regular but has struggled since falling out of Man City favour
Richards: I don’t think we should be playing 3-4-3. We should go to 4-3-3. We’re going into a tournament and these players don’t play in this formation. The only time they get to play in this formation is when they go away with the national team.
How are you supposed to compete against the likes of Belgium or France when they’ve got their systems set in stone? That leaves us at a disadvantage. Who would you play in central midfield?
Sutton: I’d pick Henderson and Declan Rice. Then for my wing-backs use Chilwell on the left and Alexander-Arnold on the right.
Richards: So you’ve got three defenders, you’ve got two more defenders as your wing-backs, a defensive midfielder in Rice and Henderson, who has a great engine but if you ask anyone what he is, they’ll say he’s a defensive midfielder. He’s not a No 10. You’ve got all those defenders! The guys up top need a supply line.
Sutton: Alexander-Arnold is one of the best supply lines out there. Chilwell, too.
Ben Chilwell hit the ground running at Chelsea and will be firmly in contention for Euro 2021
Richards: This is where people get it absolutely twisted. Playing wing-back and full back are two completely different things. When you receive the ball as a wing-back, you’ve already got people in front of you.
You might have to dribble past people or make a skill, and that’s not Trent’s game. As good as he is going forward, overlapping, great cross, great technique, passing, he’s not going to dribble past someone.
If you watch Trent, when does he dribble past someone and do a beautiful skill? In international football, playing wing-back is so hard.
Sutton: I’d agree with that, and if this system is a system which Gareth wants to persist with, are these natural wing-backs? It’s all right being well-stocked with players who will do OK, but we need more than OK to win the Euros.
Positives and negatives
England will get a clear idea of where they stand when they tackle Belgium in the latest Nations League qualifier.
But time is against Southgate as he works towards next June. How do these ex-internationals see it in one word?
Richards: My positive is, offensively, the strength in depth. Danny Ings and Calvert-Lewin are in the form of their lives. Sterling is one of the best. Sancho is worth £100million.
Danny Ings also shone up-front, scoring his first England goal just like the other goal-scorers
Now there’s Grealish. We haven’t even got to Maddison, and there’s Mason Mount. There’s real quality up front. But the negative is to work out defensively what we will do. There are issues.
Sutton (laughing): You were asked to answer quickly! Anyway, Belgium are the barometer. Let’s be honest, the first 30 minutes against Wales were awful then we got the goal, things settled down and it was very, very comfortable.
Anyway, I’m going to copy you Micah — as much as I hate doing that — and say I’m not sure whether this system is convincing. That’s my negative. Can I have two positives? Nick Pope, and Jack Grealish. Job done.