Euro 2020 chronicle: England can’t afford to ignore Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish
I remember the days when football phone calls were stacked with callers lamenting England’s lack of creativity and flair at major tournaments, or a problematic left flank that seemed to go undiagnosed for over a decade.
So often it feels like the Three Lions have embarked on a World Cup or European Championships with a safety-focused approach. A marker placed by leaving a flair player at home (read Paul Gascoigne, Matt Le Tissier, Chris Waddle) or a manager who sticks rigidly to a tactical system that stifles the lives of available players (Fabio Capello, on talk to you).
Beyond his penchant for right-backs, Gareth Southgate has managed to avoid any serious selection controversy by nominating his 26 for Euro 2020. And given the time he’s had to think about, perhaps we shouldn’t- not be surprised.
With the exception of the one obvious problem at the heart of his defense, the England manager’s biggest problem is putting together such a collection of attacking talent in one roster – and in particular how he finds a place for his only fit man. , Jack Grealish.
It is a concern that one could ask Harry Maguire to appear from a standing start, having missed the last fortnight of the season at Manchester United. But it is not catastrophic.
If there is any chance that the great center-back is fit to start, he should do so.
John Stones is also expected to start, but Croatia’s physical attack demands someone who can command in the air, and although Tyrone Mings has had a decent season at Villa, he just hasn’t done enough in a jersey. English to justify a departure, for me.
If in a hurry, Connor Coady or Ben White – who was picked as the 26th man yesterday – would be a preferable partner.
The air strengths of the opposition did not favor the switch to the English 3-4-3 used until the end of last year. Using Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw as center halves and Reece James / Bukayo Saka and Ben Chilwell on each flank could make them vulnerable against one side with plenty of 6ft and above options.
Then we have the old argument about how careful Southgate is playing.
In the 3-4-3, Declan Rice plus Kalvin Phillips / Jordan Henderson in the middle, the midfielder would feel claustrophobic, unnecessarily defensive.
However, Southgate has always had a touch of pragmatism, and so it’s inevitable that at least two ‘defensive’ midfield options will work, regardless of the system.
My preference would be to go 4-2-3-1 and find a spot next to Grealish – the only man who seemed to be shooting at full blast in the two pre-tournament friendlies.
If he’s overlooked and England struggles to create like they did in the World Cup semi-finals, I can see the social media imploding now.
Harry Kane is a sure-fire starter and it’s questionable if his tendency to descend deeper these days makes a No.10’s job harder or forces Southgate to embrace more mobile options on the wings.
But that’s the only way, I think, that Southgate can load up his team, mix and match the huge talent that he has at his disposal.
Whether he’s using Mason Mount as 10 and Grealish on the left, or putting the creator of Villa behind Kane and two quieter options like Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford on either side, I don’t mind.
Some would argue that Grealish hasn’t played enough football since returning from a three-month hiatus. Some also say that these tiny shin guards are a pretty obvious target for the most cunning defender.
But he’s a match winner. And while I think the same of Phil Foden, there is something about Grealish that tells me he’s ready to be the face of this tournament.