Jack Grealish does enough in efficient England display without fireworks
Messiahs in football tend to exist more in the mind than on the pitch. The clamour for Jack Grealish to start for England may have been answered but the pattern of the game was very familiar; he did not elevate them inexplicably to something transcendent. This was classic England under Gareth Southgate, holding an opponent at arm’s length before finally opening them up. Thrilling it was not, but it was effective.
Grealish was instrumental in the opening goal, surging down the left after Declan Rice had won possession, before releasing the overlapping Mason Mount to cross for Raheem Sterling to cuff into the bottom corner.
Grealish’s advocates will see in that moment vindication, sceptics will point to his fitful involvement in the first half, and the truth, as so often, is somewhere in between. He did enough in a performance that was generally about doing enough.
With Phil Foden injured, Bukayo Saka just coming back into the Arsenal side and Jadon Sancho picking up a knock, the selection of Grealish was probably a matter of necessity, rather than Southgate answering the pleas for him to start or, as some more cynical Aston Villa fans suggested, because he is now a Manchester City player. But whatever the reasoning, it met a widespread desire for him to start. That existed before the Euros and was not dulled by England achieving their second-best result at a major tournament by reaching the final. However successful Southgate’s prudent approach may have been – and he is responsible for five of England’s 14 victories in knockout games at major finals – there remains a sense in some quarters that his conservatism held them back.
Yet the adulation of Grealish is unusual. He turns 26 next week, but there remains something unformed about him. He has never played a European tie, and this was only his eighth start for England, his fourth in a competitive game. His technical skill, his boldness in possession, his imagination are not in doubt, but questions remain about how well he uses his ability. It’s one thing to be the outstanding player in a mid-table side, quite another to be one of a number of fine players in a more gifted lineup.
Grealish could hardly have a better coach to develop that side of his game than Pep Guardiola at Manchester City – and Guardiola clearly believes he can be developed into a top player for a top side, but that will take time.
Having started him in the two final pre-tournament friendlies, Southgate seemed to doubt his defensive and positional qualities in Euro 2020 itself, starting him only against the Czech Republic. But that is the beauty of the range of attacking players England now have.
This was always a game in which England were likely to dominate possession, as they did. Against a relatively deep-lying defence, Southgate could afford to prioritise the capacity to produce a moment of inspiration over diligence and reliability. Certainly nobody could say that the inclusion of Grealish had led to a loss of the control Southgate demands. A rip-roaring end-to-end orgy of chaos this was not.
But then why would it be? This is a good Hungary side, one that had lost just one of their previous 14 games, drawing with both France and Germany. In terms of World Cup qualification – and that, rather than entertaining the legions of moaners on social media, is the priority – a draw in the Puskas Arena would have been a good result for England; a win gives them breathing space – they can now afford a slip-up.
Quite aside from concerns over Grealish’s defensive positioning, the other problem with fielding him on the left is that Sterling, England’s most consistent creative player, has to switch to the right, breaking up his fruitful partnership with Luke Shaw. As it turned out, although he was occasionally frustrated by the physical attentions of Willi Orbán, Sterling had been England’s most persistent threat even before his goal or cross for the second.
Before a hostile crowd, England were admirably patient in possession, demonstrating the sort of confidence on the ball that would have been unthinkable in an England side a generation ago. Their early threat was limited, although Grealish, after a smart one-two with Mount, did lay on a chance for Harry Kane after 20 minutes with a cutback from the edge of the box but his shot drifted disappointingly high.
But once England had gone ahead, a goal in which Grealish’s ability to hold the ball just long enough before weighting his pass precisely was vital, the dynamic changed utterly. Forced to open up, Hungary were there to be picked off and England did that ruthlessly. Grealish played his part in that, most notably teeing up the fourth for Rice. It may not have been his most magical night, but of greater long-term significance perhaps was that, even with him, the sense of English control never wavered.