Jack Grealish couldn’t hide his frustration. And neither were the pockets of English support inside Wembley Tuesday night, some of which booed the decision. With 62 minutes remaining, the team were tied 1-1 with Hungary and Gareth Southgate had replaced Grealish, replacing him with Bukayo Saka.
The TV cameras lingered on Grealish as he took his seat. The midfielder shook his head before putting it down and running his fingers through his hair.
It was the night Southgate tried a different mix, going from their usual minimum of six starters on the defensive field and going for five whose first instinct is to attack. It was Phil Foden and Mason Mount as No.8 in the 4-3-3, leaving only Declan Rice in front of the defense, and there is no doubt that was what the fans had asked for.
Southgate himself had said on Monday that he had wanted to experiment with the more attacking midfielder since the start of last season, but the timing had never quite been right.
That was it, the stars having aligned, and yet everything fell flat. England were too open for Southgate’s liking, unable to press with the required cohesion as they struggled through Hungary’s compact 3-4-3 setup, in which both central midfielders Adam Nagy and Andras Schafer, were extremely close to Foden and Mount. .
When Southgate sought to restore the balance, it was surprising and significant that his first move was to replace Grealish. Working on the left wing, Grealish had been England’s most involved offensive threat, though overall choices were slim. He had certainly contributed more than Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, who were both in a bad mood. They were replaced at 75 minutes.
Grealish combined well with Luke Shaw at times in the first half, releasing the left-back early on with a blow that led to a cross and a snort for Kane. And it was Grealish who carried the ball with the most intent, challenging those who followed him, trying to put Hungary out of form.
He won the free kick that led to John Stones’ equalizer after a left-to-right cross run but it’s this urge to wander, to play out of the blue, that can put Grealish at odds with the structures slightly. from Southgate. This is especially true without the ball, although the manager says Grealish has improved a lot in that regard over the past 12 months.
What Southgate wants to see from his team in an offensive sense is the players getting behind opposing defenses. The benchmark is the Nations League 3-2 win over Spain in Sevilla in October 2018, when Kane ditched Sterling and Marcus Rashford. It was a masterclass of counterattack.
Grealish prefers to face the last row with the ball at his feet, to use his explosiveness. With technical players around them, such as Foden and Mount, England have to rely on more complex combinations which, against well-organized teams, can seem more difficult to execute. Southgate clearly believed he needed Saka’s higher pace against Hungary.
The bottom line with a non-systems man is he better bring the numbers, which Grealish did for Aston Villa last season. He finished with seven goals and 12 assists in 27 appearances (he was out for three months towards the end due to injury) and that is why Southgate found him a home in the England squad.
This time around, following the transfer of Grealish’s £ 100million UK record to Manchester City, he has two goals and two assists in 10 appearances, but Southgate is aware he’s only just getting started at the club. Grealish has to adapt to the complexity of playing under Pep Guardiola.
With England, it’s one goal and five assists in 17 caps, the goal coming against Andorra on Saturday. There were two huge assists in the Euro 2020 final – against the Czech Republic and Germany – but did that add up to a cohesive end product? With Grealish, you have the feeling that he has to produce a lot to justify himself, that being such a nice player to watch is not enough. Southgate’s demands on him may seem a bit ruthless.