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gAreth Southgate is in the midst of an insightful response to Jack Grealish’s first season at Manchester City when he pauses, smiles and considers the irony of people wondering why the winger is in the England squad for the Nations League qualifiers next month. “It’s interesting that last summer I spent the whole summer getting hammered for not picking it,” Southgate says. “Now I’m being told I shouldn’t choose him. But it’s my world.

Such is the life of the England manager, who realized some time ago that there was no point in pleasing everyone. Southgate can’t worry about outsiders criticizing him for continuing to ignore Leicester’s James Maddison, who finished last season with 18 goals and 12 assists, and it’s easy to understand the manager’s amusement at the doubts on Grealish given that most England supporters saw him as a mandatory. starter at Euro 2020.

Football is changing rapidly. Twelve months ago it was all about why Southgate refused to trust Grealish, who once started in England’s run to the Euro final. The question now is whether the 26-year-old is worthy of a place in the squad after struggling to find his feet at City following his £100million move from Aston Villa.

It wasn’t easy for Grealish to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s style. He finished the campaign with six goals and four assists in all competitions and failed to start many of City’s biggest games. It felt like a bad fit at times. Grealish was Aston Villa’s main man, the undisputed star, but at City he is just another cog in Guardiola’s machine.

“It’s probably adjusting to playing in a dressing room where there are great players all around you,” says Southgate. “There is a psychological part to this for everyone. He’s a humble boy, Jack. He is confident enough to take the ball but he has humility.

Rueful Gareth Southgate ponders Jack Grealish selection conundrum |  England
Jack Grealish on the ball for England against the Czech Republic at Euro 2020. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

There was a distinct reluctance from Grealish to drive the ball and run at defenders. After dazzling for Villa, it suddenly appeared that his main attribute was to come back and play a safe pass to João Cancelo. The spirit and the invention were untraceable.

Grealish’s football felt tame and his role in City’s Champions League semi-final loss to Real Madrid seemed to sum up his luck, with two stunning interventions from Ferland Mendy and Thibaut Courtois denying him the goal that would surely have brought City in the final against Liverpool.

Grealish would go on to leave his mark on City’s season. He rose to the challenge as they trailed 2-0 at half-time against West Ham in their penultimate game, his goal early in the second half sparking a comeback that helped the champions earn a point crucial.

“Once I had scored I was, ‘Come on, give me the ball’ and I was running towards people, trying to create things,” Grealish said after City sealed the title by beating Villa on Sunday. last. “I felt like myself.”

Southgate, who couldn’t help but laugh at Grealish’s exuberant celebrations after City won the Premier League, took note of the comments. “He spoke from the heart, didn’t he? he said. “And it was obvious to everyone: adapting to a totally different way of playing, adapting to different expectations where you have to win every week, where there is this competition for places.

“He’s a very good player. We’re lucky to have a lot of very good players. I imagine there would have been some anxiety going there and not winning a trophy. has now done, so I’m sure he’ll feel a little calmer.

Southgate argues Grealish is becoming a more complete player. “He learned a lot about the job,” he says. “His off-the-ball work improved. At Villa it was quite unique, he was the one who gave them hope and had complete freedom.

“If you told me he wouldn’t score 20 goals this year, well, I wouldn’t have expected that. He’s the one who likes to be the provider, the one who could play the pass before the assist That he adds going up to the far post, like Raheem [Sterling] has done over several seasons, maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But I don’t know if that’s how it’s wired. He takes as much pleasure in creating as in scoring.

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The challenge for Southgate is to draw that ingenuity from Grealish when England play Hungary on Saturday and then Germany, Italy and Hungary again in their Nations League group. The tactic, however, will never simply be “give the ball to Jack”.

Southgate also have Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Sterling and Jarrod Bowen to choose from in attack. There is no pressure on Grealish to be the talisman and his upbringing at City could suit England. They’ve always been about the collective under Southgate and that won’t change until the World Cup.

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