Gareth Southgate’s decision to omit Jack Grealish from his starting line-up against Belgium caused puzzlement in some quarters. The 25-year-old, excellent on his first England start against Wales on Thursday, was an unused substitute on Sunday.
The England manager opted for Mason Mount instead, the Chelsea youngster lining up on the right-hand side of Southgate’s attack and going on to score the winning goal, his angled shot looping into the Belgium net off Toby Alderweireld in the second half.
That goal could be viewed as vindication for Southgate. What better way for a player to justify his place in the side than by scoring the winner? But Southgate’s preference for Mount over Grealish stems from what he contributes off the ball rather than on it.
The clues were there on Thursday. Grealish produced an eye-catching performance against Wales, setting up Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s opener with a wicked cross and causing the visitors problems throughout.
But Southgate’s post-match praise came with caveats.
“His work with the ball was very good,” he said.
With the ball, but not without it.
Southgate talked up Grealish’s composure in tight spaces and his ability to draw fouls from opponents. In the same answer, however, it was striking how quickly he moved the conversation on.
“Mount, coming on in a similar position, again I thought he had an excellent impact on the game,” he said. “He presses so well, he moves the ball so quickly,” he added.
It doesn’t take much detective work to figure out that Southgate still sees weaknesses in the defensive aspects of Grealish’s game. It’s why he was overlooked against Belgium.
A fixture against the world’s top-ranked side requires discipline and diligence from front to back. Southgate didn’t think he would get that from Grealish but he certainly got it from Mount.
He described the 21-year-old’s pressing as “phenomenal” in his post-match interview with Sky Sports. “You can’t just play with the ball,” he added. “We can be a free-flowing, free-scoring team. But against the very best, the detail of how you defend as a team has got to be absolutely bang on.”
It would be a stretch to say those comments were aimed at Grealish, of course. But they were certainly indicative of the reasons for his absence. Mount, Marcus Rashford, Calvert-Lewin and later Harry Kane were described as “positionally close to perfect” in their off-the-ball work and “intelligent” in their closing down.
“They had the legs to go and press, and that means the midfield players don’t have to jump out of position,” explained Southgate. “That means we’re not exposed with bodies in-between the lines.”
It was, Southgate felt, a major factor in what turned out to be a hugely impressive victory over a top-level opponent, a victory which sent England top of their Nations League group ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with Denmark.
Southgate is well aware of Grealish’s talents, of course. He has watched him enough to know exactly what he is capable of with the ball at his feet and there were more examples of that on Thursday.
Until he contributes as much as Mount out of possession as well as in it, however, he will struggle to hold down a place in the side.
Calvert-Lewin at home with England
While Grealish had to settle for a seat among the substitutes, Calvert-Lewin, another new face in the starting line-up against Wales, kept his place.
There was no goal this time. The in-form Everton striker was unable to add to his tally of 10 for club and country this season. But there was still plenty to like about his performance.
As against Wales, he looked entirely comfortable on the big stage. As early as the first minute, he could be seen linking up with Rashford and running at the Belgium defence. Soon after that, he took a high ball on his chest, holding the ball up before laying it off to a white-shirted team-mate.
His strength and heading ability allows England to play directly. Calvert-Lewin won more aerial duels (seven) than anyone else against Belgium, at one point flicking a long pass into the path of the onrushing Rashford, who decided to check back when he could have run through on goal.
Rashford fed the ball back to Calvert-Lewin on that occasion, only for the 23-year-old to fire wildly over from 20 yards out. But even on a night when he could not capitalise on the half-chances that came his way, he showed more than enough to suggest he has a long-term future as an England striker.
The issue for him, of course, is that he is competing for a place with Kane.
The Tottenham striker, England’s captain since 2018, was not deemed fit enough to start against Belgium due to apparent muscle fatigue, but he was thrown on as a substitute in the second half and the expectation now is that he will return to the starting line-up against Denmark.
That means Calvert-Lewin will drop out. Southgate’s system does not allow for two out-and-out centre forwards in the same side.
But the emergence of another frontman capable of leading the line is a major boost to Southgate and England. Recent evidence shows Calvert-Lewin has plenty to offer at this level.