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Jack Grealish is the free-range creator England need to take hold of the game and pull it in their direction. And against Wales, Grealish showed how a creator with more positional freedom may still have a place in the modern game, even if only at International level.
Head coach Gareth Southgate experimented with his chosen system, as England kicked off in what seemed a 3-4-2-1. Conor Coady slotted in the centre of a back three. At left wing-back, Bukayo Saka made his senior England debut, as did in-form forwards Danny Ings and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Grealish started on the left of a front three, slightly in behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin. He drifted infield from the flank as expected, but also dropped fairly deep to receive the ball.
England did have issues in build-up, with the double pivot of Kalvin Phillips and Harry Winks struggling to connect with the attack. Grealish often dropped into deeper positions to offer that link between the pivot and the remaining forwards, receiving the ball and carrying or passing forward.
This can be looked at two ways; either England need Grealish to stay in advanced positions – he shouldn’t need to drop deep. Or, Grealish was more involved and played better when he didn’t have a fixed position, instead when he roamed and drifted across the the midfield.
It’s also worth noting how Phillips is perhaps far more comfortable playing as a single pivot with two midfielders ahead of him, as he does for Leeds United, where there is room to drop into space to the side of or between the centre-backs.
Nevertheless, England’s opening goal came from Grealish popping up, unmarked, on the right-wing. Making a run between two defenders, Grealish was picked out on the right-flank by wing-back Kieran Trippier. Now in a 1v1 situation, Grealish took on the defender and dribbled on the outside, and crossed into the box.
The cross was met by Calvert-Lewin for a memorable debut goal. Yes, it was a header. Trademark action from the Premier League’s player of the month for September, and ever-improving under Carlo Ancelotti at Everton.
As of late for Aston Villa, Grealish plays mostly on the left flank (in a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 and most recently a 4-2-3-1), and from there he links with the midfield, either exchanging passes or making forward runs, and cuts inside onto his favoured right-foot. But perhaps having played out wide, as a no.8 and as a no.10 means Grealish is as comfortable receiving the ball in different areas, and at least on the international stage could influence games in a free role.
Grealish is a great ball carrier, and somebody who notably attracts fouls. A foul on Grealish led to the free-kick, taken by Trippier, which set up centre-back Conor Coady to smash home his first England goal, and England’s second of the night. When Grealish was moving into different positions across the opposition half, England really had something closer to a 3-4-1-2, and found it easier to bring the ball forward either in build-up or in transition on either side of the pitch at a quicker rate.
The third goal of the night came from a Danny Ings overhead kick following a corner, which meant each goal was converted by a first-time scorer for England.
Grealish continued to combine with teammates and try taking on players, and be fouled. Grealish was eventually replaced by Leicester City winger Harvey Barnes. What this substitution did show was how England have an array of depth in positions that Grealish himself would possibly take up. Which is a good thing, even if you’re Grealish.
Grealish may have prime competition, but there’s a point to prove, and his name is certainly in the reckoning, even more so now. And it does mean there’s room to try Grealish out in differing positions/roles, or starting points if he’s going to take up a free role.
Only some of the options in positions behind the main striker England have at their disposal. One query is that although England’s formation was switched from the 4-3-3 the sides grown accustom to post-World Cup , to a back three set-up, is there time in international football to experiment too much? It’s always good to have a plan B, which England did not have at the 2018 World Cup, but it does seem the 4-3-3 suits the players often selected and those recently called up more so.
Should it also be a case of one player having freedom or players interchanging positions? Or, again, should there always be room for a plan B? Or even both?
What can be considered with the latter is that though not completely devoid of systems and tactics, international games lack the tactical sophistication of club football. This may benefit Grealish’s quality in a less fixed position. That is, if he’s continued to be used in such a way in England’s upcoming fixtures, including against Belgium on Sunday. And even the European Championships.