Jack Grealish has become a connoisseur of dugouts. He can compare the Bernabeu with the Wanda Metropolitano, the Allianz Arena with the Puskas Arena, Wembley with Old Trafford, the Etihad with the Emirates. He has begun on the bench at all this season. He became the first £100million man to win the Premier League on an afternoon when he had a view of Pep Guardiola’s back: he was an unused substitute in the final-day win over Aston Villa.
One of his most famous appearances for England both began and ended on the bench: he was the substitute who was substituted in the Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark, removed so others could protect a lead. Fast forward a year and in Munich Grealish took up his now familiar position behind Gareth Southgate. But when England were behind, he was brought on and he brought them back into the game.
Not directly. It would have been a fairer reflection of his influence had Harry Kane converted an enticing cross; instead Manuel Neuer made a superlative save and the equaliser actually came from the penalty spot when Nico Schlotterbeck tripped the England captain as each chased another Grealish centre.
He did not get an assist but he was the game-changer. If England scarcely merited a draw, Grealish nonetheless conjured one. Kane emerged as a threat with Grealish as his sidekick. His easy confidence produced a willingness to run at defenders, his magnetism drew the ball to him, his enthusiasm became infectious. He has accepted he has been too safe in possession at times in a Manchester City shirt. He had a pass completion rate of just 71 percent in the Allianz Arena but he was a picture of positivity, unafraid to take on Germany, talented enough to trouble their defenders. Perhaps it was the player who so captured Guardiola’s imagination that he paid a record fee for him.
He is also the one that Southgate tends to hold in reserve. It adds to the case that the England manager is instinctively cautious. Grealish’s defensive deficiencies count against him. “At the start of the game the challenge for the wide players was to attack, defend and to try and score goals – high tactical level and you’ve got to be spot on – and that’s an area Jack can get better at,” said the England manager. He preferred Mason Mount, who is famously good at following managerial instructions about pressing and positional discipline. But, a goal down, it was time for a maverick. Enter Grealish. “What he did do was carry the ball as the game opened up with a little bit more space and opportunity,” Southgate added. “The impact both he and Jarrod Bowen had was really important in those attacking areas.”
If it was only natural to wonder if such an impact might have been exerted earlier on, Southgate argued Grealish was capable of being either starter or substitute. “If we didn’t trust him we wouldn’t put him on the pitch with 20 minutes to go in the belief he can make a difference,” he said.
The obvious suggestion is to say Southgate should bring Grealish into the side against Italy on Saturday, especially as Mount has been below par in both June games and Raheem Sterling was not at his best in Germany. Perhaps he should but there is an alternative idea.
Especially in defining matches, Southgate’s England are sometimes a team who start well and then lose their way, retreating to their own half, having ever less of the ball, looking to hang on. It was a tale of Croatia and Italy, of the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020. Grealish can be a one-man outlet, committing defender after defender, stretching a tiring team. An attacking replacement’s role can be twofold and if he excelled at arguably the more important part of it on Tuesday, altering a game his side was losing, England’s recent history indicates they have a greater need for someone who can provide an injection of quality and ideas. For Grealish, of course, the ideal consequence is that he has propelled himself into the starting 11.
But if not, he will be able to serve his country in cameos if he establishes himself as the substitute for all scenarios. And if so, his summer will be notable for more than just his exuberant, entertaining part in City’s title-winning celebrations.