When Gareth Southgate finally sent Jack Grealish on to try and rescue Tuesday’s Nations League game against Germany, he had distinctive but decisive instructions. The England manager told Grealish to just be himself, to not constrain himself, and to “try and create”.
That was precisely what the playmaker did, and he revelled in it. It was clearly to the benefit of both Grealish and the team, as England, at last, put Germany under real pressure and forced the equaliser for a 1-1 draw. Grealish himself was beaming about it all by the time he spoke to the press after the game.
“I feel sometimes when I’m here I can try and play with as much freedom as possible,” he smiled. “I felt like I did that today.”
A potentially mischievous interpretation of that might be that it’s some time since Grealish has been allowed to do that, given his ongoing adaptation at Manchester City, except he immediately offered up an explanation along those lines himself.
He was asked whether he feels freer for England.
“I do think that, yeah. I feel at times I’ve played a bit safe at City but when I come here I feel like even in training I train really well: score goals, get assists and whatnot. When I come on the pitch… it’s hard to explain. I do feel like I play with a lot more freedom here and hopefully I can transfer that into my club football and keep on improving.
It should be stressed that Grealish was talking about his own feeling, and the manner he constrains himself at City, but it’s impossible not to put it in the framework of how his club play. Everyone who has worked for Pep Guardiola has spoken of how you almost need to “relearn the game” under the Catalan. So much of what the City manager does is so structured, with players designated certain areas they have to internalise, and only allowed to move on the pitch in relation to that. The team’s passing map is almost like a crystal or a scaffold framework. So many build-ups have preset options.
It would be wrong to say the Guardiola approach predetermines everything, in the way many critics presume, but the forwards only have the “freedom” that Grealish so adores in certain areas.
None of this really sounds all that suitable for a player who performs on the instinctive creativity from pure natural talent, and what feels right in the moment.
There are times when it feels like Grealish has joined the wrong club.
It is often overlooked, however, that he joined a Guardiola team partly because he wants to learn. That is to credit, as is his ability and willingness to openly discuss much of this - like the differences between his two managers. Grealish is admirably frank.
“Of course, they’re two different managers, so it’s always going to be difficult,” he explains. “Pep is a lot more structured. You can’t complain because of what he’s done in the game, how successful he is. Whereas Gareth is more about ‘whatever you think’. Obviously you have a formation and a structure, but he says to me if you feel like you need to go to the other side of the pitch to get the ball then go and do that.
“That’s not really part of the freedom,” he stresses. “The freedom is more in myself. Hopefully I can try transfer that to City.”
England, as Tuesday proved, could almost do with it more. It raises another frustration about a player who embodies the joyous freedom of the game.
If there are times when you wonder whether Grealish joined the wrong club, there are as many when you wonder how much he has to do right to actually start for England.
There have now been a series of big matches where he has changed the game, a situation which most memorably culminated in the Wembley crowd calling for his introduction during Euro 2020. Discussion of it went so far as to move Southgate to insist he “trusts” Grealish on Tuesday.
“If we didn’t trust him we wouldn’t put him on the pitch with 20 mins to go in the belief that he can make a difference,” the England manager argued, before offering an instructive analysis. “At the start of game, the challenge for the wide players was to attack, defend, try to score goals, again. It’s a high tactical level, and you’ve got to be spot on.
“And I think that’s an area Jack can get better at. What he did do was carry the ball, and at that moment of the game, as it opens up, there's a little bit more space, a little bit more opportunity. That freshness that he and [Jarrod] Bowen had was really important in those attacking areas."
From listening to that, it could even be said that Grealish serves as a personification of the debate over Southgate himself.
The manager will so often opt for structure and tactical discipline - which Mason Mount offers - rather than the openness and anarchy that Grealish does.
It doesn’t help the player that is just one of many options Southgate has, too.
“There’s so many talented players in that dressing room, especially in my position. I think there’s the most. Even the players that aren’t in the squad. The likes of Jadon [Sancho] and Marcus [Rashford], even Phil [Foden]. There’s so much talent, even at the moment there’s Bukayo [Saka] who’s had a brilliant season, Jarrod, Raheem [Sterling] who’s already played brilliantly for England. I know it’s always going to be difficult to try and take my chances when it comes, keep training hard and keep training well and that’s what I’ve been doing so fingers crossed we can look forward as a team and hopefully there’s more minutes and more wins.”
Far from being any irritated by his lack of minutes, though, Grealish makes a point of defending Southgate. He feels the manager is unfairly criticised, pointing to the response to the 1-0 defeat in Hungary.
“I love coming away here honestly, and I've said so many times, I think sometimes, especially the manager, people are too harsh on him. I feel like, last game for example, we lose the first game in I don't know how long it was, a bit of palaver, and it's like, we've lost a game, it happens. You know. And one thing I can say he's done, when we come away here, everyone loves it, from the staff to the players, we all get on like a family and I feel like that's why we've been so successful over the last couple of years and even before I was in the squad, at tournaments.”
There’s an obvious question over whether England offers any kind of break from the intensity of Guardiola, but Grealish doesn’t see it like that. His club boss didn’t have a proper sit down with him at the end of the season or anything like that, but that is planned in future. There were just some jokes about it all.
“I didn't speak to him, we had a laugh and a joke about certain stuff, that's the game, just stuff about ourselves, and obviously I'll speak to him next year when I get back, but I'm fine, honestly, I'm enjoying myself at City.”
He certainly enjoyed the title win - and the celebrations - even if Grealish stayed on the bench for the decisive late 3-2 comeback against Aston Villa.
“I feel happier! Yeah, that's why I went to City, to win titles and honestly that was one of the best days ever. I think it's something I'll never, ever forget because it was my first. Obviously I won the [Championship] play-offs with Villa, but we didn't win the league, whereas here, at City, we won the league, and it was unbelievable, like I say. So yeah, obviously I've got to try and build on that.
“I don't know if I feel different, I feel happier, like I say, and hopefully it's a little bit of relief off my shoulders, you know, because obviously, like I say, that's what I've always said, I've come to City to win stuff and that's my first one, so hopefully a few more.”
He certainly celebrated like it was his first, as the scenes on the day of the bus parade illustrated.
“Yeah, no, of course,” Grealish laughs. “Why not? Like I say, I had six, seven days off, so I enjoyed it, that's what I like to do. It was the right time, and the right place to enjoy it.”
It was, you could say, Jack being Jack. We possibly don’t see enough of it these days, which is why Tuesday so stood out.
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