JArith Southgate is in the midst of a revealing response to Jack Grealish’s first season at Manchester City, as he pauses, smiles and ponders the sarcasm of people asking why the winger is in the England squad for next month’s Nations League qualifiers. “It’s interesting that I spent the whole summer getting beaten up for not being picked,” Southgate says. “Now I was told not to choose him. But this is my world.”
Such is life for the England manager, who has recently realized there is no point in trying to please everyone. Southgate isn’t worried about outsiders criticizing him for continuing to overlook Leicester’s James Maddison, who finished last season with 18 goals and 12 assists, and it’s easy to see the coach’s pleasure in the skepticism Grealish displays as most England fans see him as mandatory. Starting at Euro 2020.
Football goes fast. Twelve months ago, it was all about Southgate’s refusal to trust Grealish, who once started during England’s march to the European Championship final. The question now is whether the 26-year-old deserves a place in the squad after he struggled to find a foothold at City following his £100m move from Aston Villa.
It wasn’t easy for Grealish to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s style. He finished the season with six goals and four assists in all competitions and failed to start many of City’s biggest matches. Felt like a bad fit sometimes. Grealish was the captain of Aston Villa, the undisputed star, but at City he is just another cog in Guardiola’s machine.
“You’ll probably adapt to playing in the locker room where you’re surrounded by great players everywhere,” says Southgate. “It has a psychological component to everyone. He’s a humble boy, (Jack). He’s confident enough to take the ball, but he’s humble.”
There was a clear reluctance from Grealish to lead the ball and run towards the defenders. After being so amazing for Villa, it suddenly became clear that his main characteristic was to reply and play a safe pass to Joao Cancelo. There was nowhere to be seen with wit and creativity.
Grealish felt tamed and his role in City’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Real Madrid seemed to sum up his fortune, as two stunning tackles from Ferland Mendy and Thibaut Courtois prevented the goal that would surely have sent City into the final against Liverpool.
Grealish will continue to make his mark in the City season. He accepted the challenge when they lost 2-0 in the first half against West Ham in the penultimate match. His goal at the start of the second half kicked off a comeback that gave the champions a decisive point.
“As soon as I scored I was like ‘Come on, pass me the ball’ and I was running towards people and trying to make things happen,” Grealish said after City clinched the title by defeating Villa last Sunday.
Southgate, who couldn’t help but laugh at Grealish’s boisterous celebrations after City’s Premier League win, took note of the comments. He said: “Speak from the heart, right?” “And that was clear to everyone: adapting to a completely different gameplay, adapting to different expectations, where you have to win every week, where there is this competition for places.
“He is a very good player. We are fortunate to have a lot of good players. I imagine there will be some fears going there and not winning a cup. He has done that now, so I am sure he will calm down a little bit.”
Southgate argues that Grealish has become a more rounded player. “He learned a lot about his position,” he says. “His work off the ball has improved. With Villa so unique, he was the one who gave them hope and he was completely free.
“If you had told me he wasn’t going to score 20 goals this year, I wouldn’t have expected that. He’s the guy who likes to be the provider, and maybe play the pass before helping. Whether he adds is how Rahim got to the far post. [Sterling] He’s done it for a number of seasons, maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But I don’t know if it’s wired that way. He enjoys manufacturing as much as he enjoys scoring.”
The challenge for Southgate is to conjure up this ploy from Grealish when England face Hungary and then again Germany, Italy and Hungary in the Nations League group on Saturday. However, the tactic would not be simply “give jack the ball”.
Southgate also has Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Sterling and Jarrod Bowen to choose from in attack. There is no pressure on Grealish to be the mascot and he could fit into a City England coach. Under Southgate, they’ve always been around the group and that won’t change until the World Cup.