EletiofeWhat must Jack Grealish do to earn an England...

What must Jack Grealish do to earn an England call-up?

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In a week in which Gareth Southgate has had to field a number of questions regarding his latest England squad, the omission of one player in particular has, yet again, drawn widespread interest. It’s telling that there should be such a strong reaction to an uncapped player being overlooked, but at this point it is the frequency with which Southgate has snubbed Jack Grealish that is the real story.

The Aston Villa captain certainly polarises opinion. His supporters view his skillset as almost unique in the English game. He is a silky ball carrier with an eye for a pass and a dangling leg that opponents cannot resist taking a swipe at. As Grealish glides around the pitch, with seemingly non-existent shin pads and calves as big as his thighs bursting out from what appear to be socks pulled from a junior kit, that lower leg is one of the game’s easiest targets.

Though his critics would argue that Grealish goes down too easily, to put it mildly, he was fouled 167 times last season – an all-time Premier League record. The sight of Grealish on the ground no doubt frustrates opposing fans, but the value of winning free-kicks in dangerous areas was not lost on Villa, who scored 15 goals from set-pieces this season. Only Liverpool and Manchester City (both with 17) managed more.

Those goals helped keep Villa up and they could give England an edge too. Think back to the 2018 World Cup and how much of England’s attacking threat came from set-pieces; just three of their 12 goals in the tournament were scored from open play.

Grealish is not just a threat from free-kicks. His all-round statistics last season were outstanding. He was Villa’s top scorer, their top assist provider and he carried the ball more than any other player in the Premier League. On top of that, he also created 91 chances for teammates – a tally bettered only by Kevin De Bruyne in the Premier League – all while playing for a side battling relegation.

Southgate has acknowledged Grealish’s talents, but he does not seem to hold the playmaker in high regard. Eighteen months ago the England manager said that, while he was keeping tabs on Grealish, he would not select him while he was playing in the Championship. The call-up of Kalvin Phillips – albeit in a position significantly less competitive than the one Grealish is fighting for – will have been a source of frustration for the Villa captain, who has spent the last year and a half dragging his club into the Premier League and keeping them there.

The key roadblock for Grealish is that the England boss sees him as a winger or a forward. When asked why Grealish was not in the squad for the Nations League games against Iceland and Denmark next month, Southgate said he had better options in Grealish’s position. “The difficulty for Jack is Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford,” said Southgate. “Those four have either been with us for a long time and been exceptional, in terms of Marcus and Raheem. Jadon is just breaking through and I think everybody is aware of his potential, and Mason Greenwood’s goalscoring record and performances with Manchester United were outstanding. It is an area of the field where we have people like Callum Hudson-Odoi as well. I know at times Villa play Jack as a midfield player – that is not as I see him in the way we play. So, with us he would be a wide player or a 10 and, at the moment, I think we have got players who deserve to be in just ahead of him.”

Jack Grealish is not a natural fit for Gareth Southgate’s system.
Jack Grealish is not a natural fit for Gareth Southgate’s system. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

While Southgate may says he wants a free-flowing attacking line-up, the players’ roles within his system are relatively rigid. His wingers play high, wide and fast, and that is where Southgate says Grealish is competing. It’s a position that is incredibly well stocked with players who do exactly what Southgate likes. In Sterling, Sancho and Hudson-Odoi, England boast three frighteningly fast natural wingers. In Rashford and now Greenwood – a player the manager cited as a direct obstacle in the path of Grealish – he has two strikers who are scoring goals for fun from the flanks at club level. Usurping these players may prove impossible.

But Grealish should not be considered in the same category as these players. He is not a winger and he certainly is not a striker who is being asked to play wide. Grealish is a drifter whose strength lies in cutting infield from the left. He can easily play in a traditional No 10 role – a tactic Southgate rarely adopts – but he is undeniably at his best when driving in from out. He could give England something different, but not in the eyes of the England manager.

Another factor that Southgate may be considering is the ages of the players. Greenwood (18), Hudson-Odoi (19) Sancho (20) and Rashford (22) are all younger. The Villa man will turn 25 before the new season begins and is no longer the up-and-coming star waiting for his big chance, but rather the established senior player who is consistently overlooked. With every omission, the knocks to his confidence will feel more devastating.

If he wants to play for his country, his only hope may be convincing Southgate he is worthy of a central position where he can compete with Mason Mount, James Maddison, Ross Barkley and Phil Foden. The Manchester City youngster Foden – the only other Englishman as elegant on the ball as Grealish – rather than the United forwards, should be considered the greatest object in Grealish’s way.

Timing is very important in sport. Grealish would not be the first talented and accomplished player to miss out on an illustrious international career because of when he was born and the identity of the national manager. At a time when Grealish is playing at his peak, the potential of the youth coming through in Sancho, Foden and Greenwood is undeniable.

It’s becoming more and more apparent that something will need to change for Grealish to be called up. Whether that is a positional switch at Villa, a move to a bigger club where the same level of performances become significantly harder to ignore or, dare I say it, a change of England manager, Grealish will not have the opportunity he desires above anything else: the chance to vindicate those who are baffled by his absence, and silence those who do not believe the hype. Until he gets it, Grealish will remain the footballing equivalent of Marmite. I happen to love Marmite.

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