GAreth Southgate is in the midst of a revealing response about Jack Grealish’s first season at Manchester City as he pauses, smiles and reflects on the irony of people asking why the winger is in England’s squad for next month’s Nations League qualifiers . “It’s interesting that last summer I spent all summer getting hammered for not picking him,” says Southgate. “Now I’m being told not to pick him. But this is my world.”
Such is life for the England manager, who recently realized there was no point trying to please everyone. Southgate can’t worry 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 manager’s amusement at the doubts Grealish shows as most England fans see him as a mandatory starter at Euro 2020.
Football is going fast. Twelve months ago it was all about why Southgate refused to trust Grealish, who once started during England’s run to the final of the Euro. The question now is whether the 26-year-old deserves a place in the squad after struggling 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 campaign with six goals and four assists in all competitions and failed to start in many of City’s biggest games. It felt like a bad fit at times. Grealish was the captain at Aston Villa, the undisputed star, but at City he is just another cog in Guardiola’s machine.
“It probably adjusts to playing in a locker room where you’re surrounded by great players everywhere,” says Southgate. “It has a psychological component for everyone. He’s a humble boy, Jack. He’s confident enough to take the ball, but he has humility.”
There was a clear reluctance from Grealish to drive the ball and run at defenders. After being stunning for Villa, it suddenly became apparent that his main attribute was hitting back and playing a safe pass to João Cancelo. The wit and inventiveness were nowhere to be seen.
Grealish’s football felt tame and his role in City’s Champions League semi-final defeat by Real Madrid seemed to sum up his fortune, two amazing interventions from Ferland Mendy and Thibaut Courtois preventing the goal that would certainly have sent City into the final against Liverpool.
Grealish would continue to make his mark on City’s season. He accepted the challenge as they were 2-0 down at half-time against West Ham in the penultimate game. His goal early in the second half initiated a comeback that gave the champions a crucial point.
“As soon as I scored I was like ‘come on, pass me the ball’ and I was running towards people and trying to create things,” Grealish said after City sealed the title by beating Villa last Sunday . “I felt like myself.”
Southgate, who couldn’t help but laugh at Grealish’s boisterous celebrations after City’s Premier League win, took note of those comments. “He spoke from the heart, didn’t he?” he said. “And that was obvious to everyone: adapting to a completely different way of playing, adapting to different expectations, where you have to win every week, where there is this competition for places.
“He’s a very good player. We’re blessed to have a lot of very good players. I imagine there would have been some concerns going there and not winning a trophy. He’s done that now, so I’m sure he’ll feel a little calmer.”
Southgate argues that Grealish is becoming a more rounded player. “He’s learned a lot in relation to his position,” he says. “His work off the ball has improved. With Villa it was quite unique, he was the one who gave them hope and had total freedom.
“If you’d told me he wasn’t going to score 20 goals this year, I wouldn’t have expected it. He’s the one who likes to be the provider who might play the pass before the assist. Whether he adds how Raheem comes to the far post [Sterling] has done 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 creating just as much as scoring.”
The challenge for Southgate is to elicit that resourcefulness from Grealish when England take on Hungary and then again Germany, Italy and Hungary in their Nations League group on Saturday. However, the tactic will never be simply “Give Jack the ball”.
Southgate also have 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 talisman and his City training could suit England. Under Southgate they’ve always been about the collective and that won’t change until the World Cup.