His iconic waistcoats have lost their charm. Gareth Southgate is coming under fire for his recent management of the England squad, especially regarding his treatment of Jack Grealish. However, although Grealish is indeed a very strong player, and the system Southgate has used with England is far from flawless, much of the furore surrounding this issue is very misplaced.
First to understand Grealish’s strengths and why people feel so outraged at his lack of selection, let’s look at what he has brought to the England team and why he has been such a talisman for Aston Villa. Grealish plays as left sided forward in a 4-3-3, or more commonly a 4-2-3-1, from there he comes in from the left to dictate play where he can be very creative but also take shots himself. This is why Grealish has the second highest number of assists this year so far (5) behind Kane (9) and also has the 10th most goals (5); he was also voted Man of the Match in Aston Villa’s last 4 Premier League games despite them losing 3 of them. Grealish is Aston Villa’s playmaker and is given positionally a free reign in front of goal. This was illustrated in Aston Villa’s 3-0 victory over Arsenal in November as his map of touches in this game demonstrates. It is important to remember the profile of players that surrounds Grealish to allow him to do this. In Aston Villa’s normal line-up Ollie Watkins and Trezeguet are both very quick which allows them to find space and Ross Barkley is a box-to-box midfielder who can find space by arriving unexpectedly. Additionally, Grealish has support from McGinn and Targett in the front left areas who can fill in when he roams.
Gareth Southgate has recently played 3-4-3 which can also look like a 5-2-3 or a 3-4-2-1. Essentially, it consists of 3 at the back with 2 CDMs, width is provided by wingback type players with a narrow front 3 including a traditional number 9 leading the line. In fairness to Southgate the England squad over the November international break was riddled with injuries and Southgate likely also wanted to try out a few different things in a less important tournament such a give several upcoming players debuts. However, in several games his team looked severely lacking. In the 2-0 loss to Belgium Southgate’s front 3 was Jack Grealish, Harry Kane and Mason Mount and despite all those players being talented and having put in very solid individual performances historically for club and country, England’s offence felt slow and lacked a cutting edge. There were two main reasons for this: a lack of pace in the system and the problem that Kane and Grealish fundamentally struggle to be at their best when on the pitch together because of their playing styles.
On one hand Southgate was without Sterling and Rashford who usually provide pace to his front 3 and allow runs in behind which makes England’s offence much scarier. This lack of pace really destroyed the entire team as shown by the first goal. With a lack of pace in the front 3 Belgium’s defence was able to sit very tight to the England forwards as they were not afraid of balls over the top. Furthermore, when the ball came out to Mount on the right, Vertonghen was able to be on the front foot and dispossess him which led to the first Belgium goal as seen in the image below. So, if not pace, what is Harry Kane bringing to England’s front line?
Kane has really added a creative dimension to his game this season at Spurs. Last season he had 2 assists in 29 appearances, already this season at the time of writing he has 9 from 10 appearances (comfortably the most in the league) and he creates goals beyond that. He has started to play as much more of a false 9 under Mourinho which means he sets up a lot of goals for quick powerful runners like Bale, and especially Son this season. Kane and Son combined to create 9 goals in their first 6 games and are closing in on the Premier League record for top partnerships. Even beyond direct assists he creates space with runs to create goals, for example a textbook false 9 manoeuvre can be seen below to score the first goal in Spurs’ recent 2-0 victory over Manchester City. Kane’s movement towards the short passing option draws the opposition centre-backs with him and allows Son to run into the space created behind, receive the pass instead of Kane and ultimately score. Despite his 16 goal involvements in 10 appearances for Spurs in the Premier League this season he has only 1 assist and no goals in his 5 appearances for England in their UEFA Nations League games. Like Grealish he thrives on having free reign to create as well as threaten the goal himself. Unfortunately, both of these players really thrive with certain profiles of player around them and neither player really fits what the other needs.
Of course, there are several other things Southgate is still working on with the England squad such as how to use his wing players (for pace, width and creativity but also defence) and how to balance his backline with central dominance. Despite this his main issue up front is that Grealish and Kane do not compliment each other within Southgate’s system. Grealish benefits from a quick number 9 who can stretch the opposition and create space as well as passing options he can exploit. England is not short of players that fit this profile and even Aston Villa’s number 9, Ollie Watkins, is in fact English. However, the best English talents to benefit Grealish are probably Tammy Abraham and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Kane however could do with some quick powerful forwards and although there is no parallel to Son in the England squad, Sterling and Foden both fit the profile of players that would really benefit from Kane’s creativity from the number 9 role. Sancho also has the right skillset, but Southgate seems uncertain whether he belongs in the front three or as a wingback. In the meantime, Gareth Southgate has a real headache in how to avoid public outrage and get the best out of a talented generation of English footballers.