Jack Grealish is England’s latest saviour - but he cannot do it alone

Aston Villa captain was brought off the bench by Gareth Southgate against Scotland but his special abilities need to match the system around him

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Saturday 19 June 2021 09:46
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Scottish fans react to Euro 2020 draw with England

A saviour complex is usually defined as the psychological construct which makes somebody feel the urge to save other people. So what, then, is its opposite? What’s the psychological construct which makes you feel as though you are always in need of a saviour? Because whatever that is, it seems to crop up every now and again with England.

There was a moment at the start of the second half at Wembley on Friday night - around the time it became clear things were not going to go to plan - when a close-up of Jack Grealish was projected onto the two jumbotrons at either end behind the goals. The crowd stirred. There were some cheers. Grealish even wore a hint of a smile.

There was a similar reaction last Sunday against Croatia when, with the game still deadlocked, Grealish went to warm-up down the touchline. A player yet to play a single minute at a major international tournament for his country was serenaded for a spot of light jogging. Then Raheem Sterling scored and the clamour for a change subsided.

This time, the goal did not come. This time, Grealish took to the field, replacing Phil Foden shortly after the hour mark. The fans had their way. There was a hushed expectant tension every time their man had the ball in the final third, as they waited for the deft flick or cute pass that would finally open up Scotland’s defence and create an opening. It did not arrive.

His manager was happy enough with his efforts all the same. “We put him on to get into those one against one situations,” Gareth Southgate said of Grealish’s cameo. “I thought he took players out of the game. He at times got them on the back foot, drove into the penalty area... I was pleased with what he did when he came on.”

It was not the game-changing or even the match-winning display that the hype promised, though.

That is not to say that Grealish is not a contender to start or to be one of the first options off the bench, depending on how the opposition is set up. His introduction was needed at Wembley on Friday. Just because it did not lead to a marked improvement in the performance or produce a win does not mean it was the wrong decision.

Grealish is a unique talent and one who was overlooked at international level for too long, as we wrote in these pages once he finally broke through under Southgate back in October. Yet as Southgate pointed out after this disappointing goalless draw, expectations have to be managed.

“I think with Jack, we’ve got to be realistic,” he said. “We know he can help us to open up a defence in those sorts of moments and he nearly managed that a couple of times, but I thought Scotland defended very well against him.”

Grealish, through absolutely no fault of his own, appears to be becoming a symbol of a certain dissatisfaction with Southgate’s management. The two are being set in opposition against each other - a flamboyant maverick genius with his socks rolled round his ankles against the conservative company man - and that false dichotomy cannot be helpful.

It was a similar story a little more than a decade ago now at the 2010 World Cup, when amid far more turgid England performances, there was a sudden groundswell of support for Joe Cole to play a greater part.

“I personally think he and Wayne [Rooney] are the only two in the side who can really open up things and are key to breaking down defences,” said John Terry, in his infamous and ill-advised Rustenburg press conference. “If he’s called on, Joe will do a great job.”

Cole, a technically-gifted player with more flair than most of the alternatives to Fabio Capello, was called on in England’s next two games. He played 44 minutes across two substitute appearances against Slovenia and Germany having previously been a spectator. Surprisingly, he did not turn England’s fortunes around.

Jack Grealish reacts during England’s draw with Scotland

Why? Because particularly in international football, where there is less time to work on tactical plans, players need to be integrated and to fit in pre-defined systems. It is not about bringing a saviour in and expecting them to make all the difference. It is about building a team and that takes time.

Grealish has eight caps and only three since the start of the year. The nucleus of this England team appears to have been formed during March’s World Cup qualifiers, which the Aston Villa captain missed through injury.

He should start against the Czech Republic. England can be fairly sure of qualification, would do well to rest others and it would be useful to see what Grealish is capable of if trusted to play from the start.

Who knows, if he does, perhaps there will be a sudden, notable improvement on the Scotland performance. But if so, it will be because Southgate has found the right system to make the most of his special abilities, rather than just throwing him in and expecting him to be England’s saviour.

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