Last night saw another semi final defeat for Gareth Southgate’s regenerating England side and whilst the improvement under his management is evident, the gaps in the prominent area of England’s midfield remains a huge concern.
There is little doubt that the shift in culture under Southgate’s leadership has led to an upturn in results and most significantly, performances. However, with that comes a greater expectation of success and with the Euro 2020 finals only a year away, the task of turning an over-performing fledgling outfit into genuine contenders for silverware will be underway.
England played some good football at times against Holland, but ultimately fell to a 3-1 defeat after extra time, courtesy of 2 howling defensive errors, first by John Stones, then Ross Barkley. The talk from the commentary positions between Martyn Tyler and Gary Neville, focused on the tactical pros and cons of playing out from the back, particularly at stages of the game when a foot through the ball to launch it could possibly be more appropriate.
Neville was adamant that the problem for England lies in midfield. The midfield trio of Declan Rice, Ross Barkley and Fabian Delph started the match, with Jordan Henderson coming on in the 2nd half - however only Barkley appears to be able to hold the ball, carry it forward and provide any sort of link to the forwards. At times Raheem Sterling was required to come deep to collect the ball, putting him in trouble.
Would Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish potentially improve that midfield and help it function better, within the system?
First of all it must be said that Jack has more than enough quality to ply his trade at international level, even though he has spent the past 3 seasons in the Championship. Some players just have that ‘X’ factor and observers instinctively know that they will be comfortable at any level, of which Jack is one.
Furthermore, the major skills which Grealish possesses lend themselves well to the international game. He is able to find space in midfield, take a pass whilst marked and move away from defenders. He is skillful and able to beat players and has an excellent passing range, but at the same time is happy to keep it simple rather than risk a turnover if a ball is not on. He will drag defenders to him and create avenues for others. He will win fouls.
Whilst Jack is clearly the kingpin of the Villa team and he knows it, he has a great team ethic, often to his own detriment, as fans can become frustrated if he offers up shooting opportunities in favour of a pass. Of course he loves scoring and creating goals, but if someone else is better placed to do it, then that is better for the team.
The most improved aspect of Grealish’s game is his workrate. When he burst into the first team under Sherwood, he was a number 10, purely there to run at and bamboozle defenders, with others doing the running for him. These days he plays in a deeper ‘number 8’ type position and is comfortable rotating with his midfield colleagues as part of the counter press, or being the link man from the defence. His boundless energy and desire means that he can chase and harry the opposition all match and works well as part of the pack when trying to win the ball back quickly.
When it comes to productivity, this has improved under Dean Smith, however this will still be seen as a weakness by some, possibly because he is still viewed as being a number 10 and therefore expected to score more goals - being directly compared to the excellent James Maddison. If he can continue to improve this aspect in the Premier League, then it will strengthen his case for international recognition, however what England lacked against Holland and in the World Cup semi final was midfielders who can dictate the flow and tempo of the game. This is where Jack is most valuable to England. His ability to carry the ball into dangerous areas and retain possession or draw a foul, to keep the pressure on the opposition. His reading of the game and intuition to change the pace in an instant, with a charge forward or by creating a chance is what sets him apart from his peers.
He also has the leadership aspect as he captained Villa to playoff triumph and will now get his chance to lead the club into their first Premier League campaign in years. It is easy to forget that Jack was once a rising Premier League star and tipped for big things, which was slightly halted by the club’s abysmal fall from grace.
Now that he is back in the top flight, Grealish will get the opportunity to show Southgate that he can mix it with the best players in Europe and compare to the likes of Barkley and Lingard, who will be his competition in the England squad.
Personally I will back Grealish to make himself an England regular over the next two seasons and make the midfield tick, as he has done at Villa since his injury, albeit at Championship level. The club can assist with this by building a competitive team around him, playing Dean Smith’s attacking passing game, so he can sprinkle his stardust and show his worth to Gareth Southgate, in time for the Euros.
Ultimately, if he does his thing for Villa, he will make it impossible for Southgate to ignore him.