“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood,” wrote George Orwell. This was the night, surely, even in a 2-0 defeat to Belgium that ended England’s Nations League hopes, that Gareth Southgate came to understand Jack Grealish.
The touch that will be remembered for some time came in the 79th minute, a delicate caress with the outside of his right boot that deceived Thomas Meunier and allowed Grealish to race free. The pass to Harry Kane that followed proved it was not just for show.
There were plenty of them on a night when England lost but Grealish won. The debate about whether he should be in this squad is over. Discussion over whether he has a place in this team should stop too. A more fitting question is whether he is now England’s best player.
This was Grealish’s competitive debut for his country, away to the world’s best team, and it would be an understatement to say that he looked at ease. The swagger was there for all to see.
“You always worry when a player steps up to international level, not so much whether they will bring their club form but whether they will bring their confidence, that football arrogance,” Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports. “Just watching him in this second half it is as if he is playing for Aston Villa. Everything is going through Jack Grealish.”
There was one passage of play that summed it up. Firstly, there was a hooked pass over the top of the Belgium midfield for Declan Rice to run onto. Then came a clever angled pass to the same player that he controlled nonchalantly out of the sky with his right knee.
Grealish followed that with up a quick dart between three opponents before sliding a measured pass through to Bukayo Saka inside the box. Another probing ball took out four Belgium defenders and found the feet of Kane inside the penalty area once more.
It was a contribution worthy of any highlights package but this little snippet of Grealish’s quality all came in the 85th minute of a match that, by that point, he had long since taken over.
“Fantastic again from Grealish in and around that box,” said Carragher. “He has been the standout performer, certainly second half, and, I think, throughout the game for England.”
That it came in a defeat should not detract from Grealish’s contribution. Two goals from outside the box scuppered England’s chances but they had their openings at the other end.
Everything that they did create was instigated by him and his willingness to feed passes into the feet of Kane was something that will not have been lost on the England captain.
“I really like him,” Kane told Sky Sports. “It was great to get out on the pitch with him. He is always looking for that pass forward which is great for a striker. Really positive signs.”
Grealish felt that connection too
“I think it just clicks with certain players,” he added. “Every time I had the ball I was trying to look for him because I know what damage he can cause in and around the box.”
It is an example of an intelligence that should quell concerns over some oft-repeated criticisms of Grealish’s game. Some seem to bristle at the sight of him on the deck but he won seven fouls for his side against Belgium, many of them in dangerous areas. They are chances that this team will cherish in the biggest games.
Others point to his tendency to hold onto the ball too long, a perverse complaint given England’s pitiful history of ball retention. Midway through the second half, he sucked so many men to him that Kyle Walker was free to shoot from the edge of the area.
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If the balance of the team was not quite right in the absence of two wide-forwards with pace in Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, that is a problem for Southgate to solve.
Any solution now looks likely to include Grealish.
“I thought Jack had an absolutely outstanding game,” Southgate told Sky Sports.
“What I saw that I knew I would see was someone with the bravery to play. He took the ball in tight areas, his techniques were good, he took players out of the game. We knew he would buy a lot of free-kicks, which, of course, he did. I just thought he was outstanding. He should be absolutely delighted with the way that he played.”
Has he climbed up the England manager’s list?
“Yeah, 100 per cent. Today was a great game for us to see him in and to see the level. I could not speak highly enough about his performance.”
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As for the man himself, even in defeat he struggled to mask his delight in producing such an impressive showing in a match that must have felt like a trial game given the speculation.
“I absolutely loved it,” he told Sky Sports.
“For me, this is what I have been waiting for. These are the games that I dreamed of playing in. This is what I love, the pressure of needing to play well.”
Jack Grealish loved it and he is no doubt feeling that love from everyone now. But perhaps the most significant outcome of this evening in Belgium is that, however belatedly that appreciation might have come, his England manager now understands him too.
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