So, we watched England fumble their way to a 0-0 draw against a fired-up Scotland squad that included an on-song John McGinn. And while no one expected Scotland to score for fun coming in, England most certainly weren’t expected to tally just one goal over 180 minutes so far in these Euros.
There’s no lack of opinion on what’s not clicking for the Three Lions. Me, I’ve tried to see it all ways. I get that Southgate wants to bring along some outstanding young talent. I get that defense wins championships. I get group stages. I get that maybe giving players minutes and finishing 2nd could in many ways be better than blazing through on nine points and diving head first into the Group of Death.
Whatever the reasons Southgate arrived at his decisions Friday night, the result was a dispiriting, disjointed performance that can’t have done anyone any good. Whatever benefit he hoped to accrue…well, he has to be playing a very long game. Looking insipid, tepid, and uninspired? Just not a good look.
It’s the look of a team without an identity, a team that’s having the best instincts reined in. Which is a shame, because confidence and form are everything.
In short, no one in Southgate’s starting XI is driving the bus. No one among his favored bright young things is yet willing or able to be The Man. And we’ve seen how that goes—no thrust, no impetus, no focus, no risk, no urgency, no payoff. Perhaps that’s by design. But it’s a dangerous design, and more than likely not a winning design. You can manage with an eye toward the future, but the future is always now. Ask any of Gareth’s predecessors.
I don’t know Southgate. Never met the man. No idea what his motivations or inspirations are. All I know is what I see on a pitch. And what I saw against Scotland, much like what I saw against Croatia, was a team that was much less than the sum of its parts. Minor case in point: Grealish expecting an overlap from Luke Shaw that you’d see in any Premier League game. Instead, Grealish lays the ball off into an empty space that Shaw would be filling all day long for United.
Lack of understanding? Maybe. Except that’s the basic understanding virtually everywhere. So basic that Grealish took it for granted, silly flashy boy.
I don’t believe Grealish is the Messiah. And, yes, he has been a naughty boy. But those days are behind him, and I do believe he’s simply the closest thing England have to a world-class attacking midfielder. That’s a guy you build around, just like Dean Smith and Villa’s ownership are. That’s the guy Pep wants. That’s the guy maybe 8 out of the top 10 clubs in Europe want, and only 1 or 2 can afford. That’s the guy with an extremely firm all-cash £100m + price tag. That’s the guy who missed 12 games and still rivaled Kevin De Bruyne in the most telling statistical categories.
That’s the guy who’s been carrying a team on his shoulders for three seasons now. He’s a difference-maker.
Being Villans, we know no one else knew or cared. We know everyone thinks he’s a cheating whinger. We know they think he’s overrated. We’ve also known they’re wrong because we see him week-in, week-out. Ever since he was sidelined with the spleen injury, he’s been a man on a mission. He knows how good he is and he wants to realize his potential. He wants the ball. He wants the pressure. He wants the glory. And now we see that the rest of England are finally copping, and they’ve only seen him at 70-80%.
Of course this makes the situation worse for Jack and England. Expectations are through the roof, Southgate won’t want to be seen bowing to public demand, and the rest of the set up doesn’t seem up to even providing a platform for Jack to do what he does for Villa: make everyone around him better. But there’s a lot of talent on that team. They need inspiration. They need to play like they do for their clubs.
Southgate increasingly seems to be a Portugal manager who doesn’t want Ronaldo to get all the credit.
He’ll talk systems, work rate, athleticism, competition. He’ll say all kinds of things that Grealish makes a mockery of virtually every time he plays.
In all honesty, I’d just as soon have Grealish than Kevin De Bruyne, and certainly Bruno Fernandes. And both those excellent players are nailed on for national teams that look a lot better than England. Jack? Well…
(Thought Barney Ronay had an excellent take over at The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2021/jun/19/jack-grealish-may-not-have-all-the-answers-but-can-we-please-find-out. Fine piece of writing, that.)
Jack may not be enough to overcome Southgate’s deficiencies, er, ‘caution’, or perhaps even the side’s in general. But if Gareth doesn’t turn to him, then he’s a foolish, stubborn man who will, in all probability, be out of a job sooner rather than later. England’s great expectations are poised to come crashing to earth, and if they do, the only thing that would keep Southgate in the job is the World Cup following so soon. But a further year’s work based on a flawed premise is not likely to yield much better results.
A year letting the team coalesce around a swaggering, confident and attacking focal point? That might get them somewhere.
Over to you.