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Jack Grealish doesn't naturally fit into England's system – so can he adapt to the role Gareth Southgate wants him to play?

Jack Grealish Aston Villa England
(Image credit: PA)

Gareth Southgate had reasons to regret and retract his words last week. Five hours after selecting Harry Maguire and launching a staunch defence of a totem of his team, the Manchester United captain was abruptly removed from his squad. A series of convictions and a suspended prison sentence in Greece made Southgate’s loyalty seem misguided, to say the least.

There are reasons why his other utterances received less attention, but it is probably important to note Southgate has been true to his word. Under other circumstances, Jack Grealish would have been a controversial omission and if it has sometimes felt that one Aston Villa captain was seeking grounds not to select another, Southgate offered an explanation. 

“With Jack, the simple answer is Mason Greenwood,” Southgate said. The precocious Greenwood remains in the squad to face Iceland and Denmark, but when Marcus Rashford withdrew, Grealish was summoned for his first senior call-up. 

In short, Southgate deems Grealish a forward, not a midfielder. The temptation has always been to see Grealish as one of umpteen options for the attacking midfield slots, a player whose every game could provide a chance to compare him with James Maddison or Dele Alli or Ross Barkley or Mason Mount or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Jesse Lingard.

And as it transpired, such assessments were irrelevant. “I know Villa have played him as a No.8 but I don't see him in that role for us,” Southgate said. “He's competing in my view against Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling.”

So the criteria change for the ball-carrier extraordinaire. By the standards of even an attacking midfielder, Grealish’s return of eight goals and six assists last season was excellent. It was all the more impressive given Villa’s travails and that, for large swathes of winter, he seemed his side’s sole source of inspiration. He assumed responsibility in a way few others have to. He was the most fouled player in the division and perhaps he might have been even more productive had he not been hacked down so often.

It may be automatically unfair to judge him against players who spent more time in the penalty box for better sides with more creative team-mates, but Grealish averaged a league goal every 404 minutes last season. Sterling delivered one every 130, Greenwood 131, Sancho 134 and Rashford 156. England are fortunate to have such a potent crop of wingers, each scoring at a rate many a striker can only envy. The task for Grealish, perhaps, is to try and emulate them. The issue, maybe, is if he has to replicate their role or if England adapt to his style of play which, understandably, was forged in part in midfield.

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Rewind to the dim and distant past when international football was played and England’s forward line often assumed a similar shape to Liverpool’s, with the supposed spearhead, in Harry Kane, dropping deeper while fast wingers became the most advanced players. That has not tended to be Grealish’s game; he comes into midfield to get the ball. He is not renowned for springing offside traps. He is more the runner with the ball than without. 

But he is competing against very different players. Grealish can feel unique, but there are reasons there is no equivalent of him in England’s system. Southgate’s progressiveness can obscure the reality that some players seem to slip through the gaps between the defined roles he requires. Grealish’s friend James Maddison is another who is not really deemed a No.8. Grealish is not a Greenwood, a Rashford, a Sterling or a Sancho. He was called up as the next winger in Southgate’s pecking order. If he is to stay in the squad, it may be a question if he changes or if England do.

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