Gareth Southgate says that Jack Grealish has learned to be a different kind of footballer in his title-winning season at Manchester City and that the changing of his role at club level makes him more suited to what he will be asked to do in an England shirt .
The England manager, whose Nations League campaign begins against Hungary in a behind-closed-doors game in Budapest next Saturday, said that he valued the “free spirit” in Grealish but that Pep Guardiola’s team had given his game a new dimension. Speaking extensively about the right-footed left winger who caught the country’s imagination at Euro 2020 last summer, Southgate joked that perceptions of the player summarized the volatility of the public mood.
Southgate said: “It’s interesting that last summer I spent the whole summer getting hammered for not picking him, now I’m being told I shouldn’t be picking him, but that’s my world.”
He said that he had enjoyed listening to Grealish after City’s final day league title triumph and understood the relief the player will have felt at winning a trophy in his first season having arrived for a British record £100million. Southgate said: “I think he’s learned a lot positionally. Without a doubt, tactically, his working without the ball has improved over a period of 18 months. At [Aston] Villa it was quite unique, he was the one who gave them hope, got them up the pitch, had total freedom really with what he did. It’s a very different ask, more aligned at club [as opposed to] … what we’ve asked him to do.
“Also, he is that free spirit as we’ve seen over the last 48 hours that just wants to enjoy his football as well. He is what he is. If you’d said to me ‘He’s not going to score 20 goals this year’; well, I wouldn’t have expected that. He’s the one who likes to be the provider. He’s the one that might play the pass before the assist. He’s a different type of player. Whether he adds getting on the far post [and scoring]like Raheem [Sterling] you have done over a number of seasons – maybe he will, maybe he won’t. I don’t know if that’s how he’s wired. He gets as much enjoyment out of the creating as he does the scoring.”
Southgate said that Grealish had impressed his staff with his performances in training during the two March friends and that the player was evidently adapting to the new expectations of life with Guardiola’s serial winners. He said Grealish had “to adapt to a totally different way of playing, to adapt to different expectations where you have to win every week, where there is that competition for places.” He also added that England had many potential matchwinners, including Sterling, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and captain Harry Kane – many of whom were competing as Grealish for the same spot in the team.
Southgate outlined his backing for Harry Maguire, the embattled Manchester United captain, whom he said was still in his first-choice centre-half pairing along with John Stones. Tyrone Mings and Eric Dier have both been omitted from this squad with Southgate eager to look at Marc Guehi, an injury doubt, and Fikayo Tomori. On Maguire, Southgate said: “He has been consistently, with all our data across the season, although the perception would be of a certain level… he would still be there amongst our top two or three.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.