Just how good is Jack Grealish? That has to be the question Gareth Southgate asks himself as he analyses England’s defeat by Belgium that disappointed their hopes of reaching the finals of the Nations League again.
The manager appears wedded to a 3-4-3 system, believing it will give England the best chance of succeeding in tournament football, but it seems to exact the price of fewer goals scored. There remains, too, a suspicion that it will still fall short against the very best especially without the pace of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford who were both injured.
Belgium, Fifa’s No 1-ranked side, certainly fit into that category but Southgate largely appears to have created a problem in attack by solving a problem in defence. Grealish’s impressive performance also adds further food for thought over England’s future direction.
Does the 25-year-old merit a change of system to get him into the team in a freer role? There are now four competitive games, and some friendlies, to go before England kick off at the delayed European Championship next summer and sometimes players mount compelling late runs before tournaments that make them undroppable. Paul Gascoigne did it, famously, before Italia 90 and Grealish could well be doing it now.
It would be bold of Southgate to change his plans at this stage and maybe he feels Grealish can prosper as part of a front-three – as he does with his club, Aston Villa, although, crucially, not in this formation. There would appear to be a case for a rethink with Grealish as the creator for Kane, Sterling and Rashford but there is precious little time. Maybe 4-2-3-1? At least it should be trialled as an alternative.
On occasions Grealish was almost unstoppable against Belgium, despite the score-line, with one flick to take him away from Thomas Meunier almost breaking the internet as the defender kicked out at him. Except it should also be noted the skill was executed in Grealish’s own half. Equally he was fouled seven times, more than the entire Belgium team, but that could have been a product of him holding onto the ball too long at times. As ever with Grealish, as with such mavericks, opinion can be divided and it depends what you want to believe but it will also not be lost on Southgate how often the other players looked to give him the ball, on his first competitive start, in the hope he would be the one to create something.
Interestingly, also, Grealish spoke about watching clips of Kevin De Bruyne and Philippe Coutinho as part of his preparations but he is yet to deliver the killer passes in the way those two do while, evidently, being a far better dribbler. What is the answer? It is a conundrum.
Southgate had declared that England had to “hunt down” top teams like Belgium if they want to be the world’s best. Instead they became the quarry. England did not play badly, especially in the second half, and were missing a host of players against pretty much a full-strength Belgium,Eden Hazard apart. But there was deep disappointment with the manner of the defeat.
There was more concern, for club and country when Ben Chilwell and Jordan Henderson went off off injured although their problems are believed to be relatively minor and there was more promise in the way 19-year-old Bukayo Saka came on and impressed. As ever it is a balancing act.
And yet. England were easily undone inside 10 minutes with Eric Dier’s loose pass, intended for Mason Mount, intercepted by Jan Vertonghen. Dries Mertens played it quickly to Romelu Lukaku who superbly held the ball up before cleverly passing it through the legs of Declan Rice. It was met on the full by Youri Tielemans on the edge of the penalty area, ricocheting off Tyrone Mings’s shin and beating Jordan Pickford who got a touch on it before the ball struck the inside of the post and crossed the goal-line.
It was the first goal England had conceded in open play in 10 games and it was careless – and there was soon a second. Maybe it would all have been different if Toby Alderweireld had not superbly blocked from Grealish or if, from the resulting corner, Lukaku had not alertly covered for Thibaut Courtois after the goalkeeper was beaten by Harry Kane’s header. Lukaku cleared off the line.
Instead it was Belgium who scored.
De Bruyne shaped to shoot and was challenged by Rice who howled in frustration as a free-kick was awarded. It was 22 yards out and De Bruyne and Dries Mertens stood over it with the latter whipping a wonderful right foot shot over the defensive wall to beat Pickford at his near post. The inquest on that goal will include whether it was a foul, whether the wall was big enough – and why did only half of it jump?
England dominated the second-half but for all of Grealish’s ball-carrying ability, with him tripped just as he dribbled into the Belgium area, they did not create a clear-cut, definite chance. The pressure was concerted –
England had more possession (55 per cent), more attempts at goal (16 to eight) and corners (five to one) – but it was hard to discern whether it was Belgium settling for what they had or them being forced back.
It was Belgium who went closest to scoring again with Lukaku on a mission to add to his phenomenal goals record for his country as he forced Pickford into one sharp save with a first-time shot and out-stripped Dier to drive the ball narrowly wide.
For England it was Grealish carrying the fight as half-chances were created for Kane, on his 50th cap, and for substitute Jadon Sancho, who came on as a wing-back, but they could not make the breakthrough and the fear will be that, well as they played at times, they never came close to threatening Belgium. For Southgate that is one more thing to ponder.