The German Jinx has been broken, and with that out of the way, England’s path to the final looks as favorable as one could hope. And England even went a bit mental and netted twice this time out. Whether it was a coincidence that Jack was involved in both goals? I’ll leave that up to England. But it was pleasing to see him impact the game, get another assist, and for Harry to finally get off the mark.
I’d started in on this before the match, but circumstances conspired against me. However, not a lot changed, other than the “if-then” result.
Which means the question before kickoff remains the same after the long-awaited victory: Have we been too hard on Southgate?
England finished on top of their group, after all, but never seemed entirely convincing in the process. Too defensive, Kane a shadow of himself, unimaginative in attack and not exactly free-scoring.
Meanwhile, the Euros rolled on, and the first knockout round produced at least one true shock with Switzerland taking out France. A solid Czech Republic in turn took out a Netherlands team that has continued to be considerably less than the Oranje of the past, aided in no small part by de Ligt’s red card. Crotia took Spain to extra time. Did the Czechs and Croatians deserve more credit? Perhaps they did. So, France, Germany, Portugal, and Netherlands all out. Belgium may have suffered hammer blows with injuries to De Bruyne and Hazard the Elder. Which pretty much leaves Italy and Spain as the biggest obstacles to bringing it home.
As we’ve gotten to this point, Villans have spent most of our energy over the last couple weeks either aghast at Jack Grealish not being nailed on in England’s starting XI, or, more recently, fretting to various degrees about Grealish leaving Villa for City. Or both.
If England haven’t looked formidable or particularly threatening going forward, they have been solid at the back. Four to the good, none against, thanks to a fantastic Pickford save and a howler from Müller. As everyone knows, being hard to beat is Job One.
Southgate’s very defensive inclinations have come at the expense of attack. Kind of how it works. But, tournament football is far more about results than being exciting or swashbuckling. And there should always be goals in the side with Kane, Grealish, Foden, Mount, Sterling, and Saka to call on.
So, I’m not necessarily going to twist and hail Southgate’s approach just yet, although I will give him credit for sticking to his guns and setting the side up to be hard to break down and dangerous on the counter. That really may be all that’s required. And it may ultimately be the case that whereas other sides are built around singular players like Modric, we may have to get used to the idea of Grealish coming on and changing things rather than starting and encouraging a more open and creative approach from the off.
We’d all like to see England dazzling and dominating matches rather than managing them. We want to see City in irresistible attacking form rather than Burnley grinding it out. But as we see more favored teams stutter, the margins of victory become pretty irrelevant. All that counts is winning. And at the moment, it looks like solidity is largely winning out over flair.
Against Germany, I got the logic of the set-up even if I was fairly stunned like everyone else to see Grealish, Foden, and Mount all on the bench. But the idea was simple. Clog everything up, cancel out Germany’s set-up, and give a wobbly side that’s not very fast at the back something to think about with Sterling and Saka.
It didn’t really add up to a lot of attacking fireworks, but it did blunt Germany’s strengths. England were more athletic and energetic, even if the Germans seemed in control when the pace slowed. England looked better at a higher tempo.
Regardless, it wasn’t until Jack was introduced that things clicked for home side. He was in the right spot as always for the first goal, taking the layoff from Kane and drawing players to him when he made as if he was going to take it into the box. He then did the smart thing and put a perfectly weighted ball into Luke Shaw’s path who overlapped like you’d expect. The second, obviously it was Jack who was in space, went round and slotted the ball in to Harry for another assist.
The minutes have been limited, but Grealish has certainly made the most of them.
Does it work the same way with Grealish starting? You’d say yes, because we know the more he plays and sees the ball, the better he gets. But there are still unknowns. We don’t know how much his workload is being managed. We don’t know whether Southgate figures the one-two punch of direct pace, followed by a more creative approach is a winning combination. Given the system changes for Germany, Gareth is being a little flexible in his thinking. You could also call it reactive rather proactive, but he does seem to be trying to pick horses for courses. He’s certainly seemed to cop to the fact that Grealish should be the first change. As long as players get him the ball, he’s been influential.
Hasn’t been flashy, and not the kind of role we see Jack taking up for Villa. The team aren’t yet using Jack to carry the ball. The players seem much more familiar with others, like Sterling, doing that and relying more on pace to make it happen. The side kept tending toward the right instead of the passes to an open Grealish. But we all know how explosive Jack can be. He runs with the ball as well as anyone.
The calls for Jack to start will continue. And I think England have a more balanced and creative attack with him on the pitch. Saka is dangerous, no doubt, and when you have two fast forwards running the channels, there’s going to be space for them to exploit. But Saka didn’t have the impact he did previously, and Sterling, who has had the charmed touch and timing for goals, has also been a bit unreliable in possession. He’s been a driving force, but the turnover last night should, by all rights, have led to an equalizer, and he ran himself into trouble more than once.
At the end of the day, Southgate got a knockout win against Germany at long last. Not a vintage German side, but certainly a psychological hurdle. Are we going to see more of the same from Southgate against Ukraine? We might very well, though maybe not with the wingback approach. The variables pretty clearly seem to be at ‘right back’ and along the front line, meaning one of Saka, Grealish, Foden, or Mount complementing Sterling and Kane.
On another night, it could very well have gone wrong had Havertz and Müller connected. But they didn’t, Grealish had another star turn, and Gareth will keep on being Gareth. All I know is that if it nets England silverware, it’ll be hard to argue with his approach. If England stutter and fall short playing this way, well, Southgate will never hear the end of it.
Over to you.