Gareth Southgate continues to show a reluctance to commit to Jack Grealish. But why?
You have to wonder whether Southgate is purposefully trying to upset Grealish and his supporters. It’s one of the only logical explanations behind the England manager’s comments about Grealish and the perceived rivalry with Mason Mount.
For those of you who missed it, here is what Southgate said before England's 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland in reply to a question about Mount:
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I suppose you're referring to Mason whose only crime is not to be Jack at the moment. But I'm also aware I should talk about Mason because then it keeps the memes going of me talking about Mason.
Why not stoke those flames a little bit more while you’re at it, Gareth.

So what exactly is the issue?

Grealish’s phenomenal form would suggest he should be very much part of the England first team. Yet the Villa man currently only has three caps. In contrast, the player that many seem to think is taking his place in the set-up, Mason Mount, has 11 caps.
Southgate delayed calling Grealish up to the England set-up far longer than form would have merited, and seems to consistently downplay the success that the 25-year-old has enjoyed.
It has all the hallmarks of an England manager refusing to embrace the talents of a player who exists outside the St George's Park 'plan', the rejection of a throwback talent who perhaps doesn’t fit into Southgate’s formula.
That's what many critics of Southgate and Villa/Grealish fans would have you believe
But is there more to it than that?

England's manager Gareth Southgate (L) congratulates England's striker Jack Grealish (R) as he comes off substituted during the international friendly football match between England and Republic of Ireland at Wembley stadium in north London on November 12

Image credit: Getty Images

Where should Grealish play for England?

The Villa captain has mainly played as one of a two off the striker for his club, drifting inside from the flank to act as something between a wide forward and a number 10.
Unfortunately for Grealish, England have an abundance of talent in those roles. Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood have all enjoyed great success in similar positions for their clubs over the last couple of years, and all bring a slightly more direct goal threat than Grealish to the role.
If Grealish is to play for England in his preferred position then he will have to start ahead of a host of those players named. And while the absence of Rashford and Greenwood and Sterling's lack of form gave Grealish a chance against Ireland, that competition for places does explain why his involvement in the set-up has been limited to date.

Jack Grealish of Aston Villa

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Are goals a problem?

Regardless of the formation that Southgate settles on long term, it is likely that the players in the front three are going to shoulder the goalscoring burden for England.
That may seem like an obvious statement, but in England’s case the responsibility of goalscoring is going to fall far more on that group than in most club sides.
Southgate’s concern, as he has explicitly said on a number of occasions, is that Grealish has not contributed enough goals or assists for his club to force his way into that England front three.
The fact that Grealish plays for Villa, a side who enjoy far less possession inside the final third than many of the clubs for whom his positional rivals play, should not be discounted. But it is also true that Grealish, while a terrific talent, has not racked up the sort of numbers that make him a must pick.
At least, not until now.

Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish

Image credit: Getty Images

"We knew he was a good player, but not in the form that maybe people were suggesting when you compared to how many goals Mason Greenwood had scored and what Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling had produced," Southgate explained, before adding that the England management had challenged Grealish to contribute more if he wanted to be considered.
Grealish has responded to that challenge emphatically, creating an abundance of chances and scoring four goals in Villa’s seven Premier League matches so far this season. He also assisted Sancho in England's stroll at Wembley.
That recent record, coupled with the lack of form and fitness of others, could well see him get a decent run for England.
But is it really feasible for Grealish to do enough to be a regular in one of those positions in the long term? If the answer is yes then England will have a hell of a player on their hands.

Why the Mason Mount rivalry?

Perhaps the strangest element of this whole discussion is the Mason Mount connection.
It’s not hard to see why Southgate becomes frustrated with the issue. The two are both midfielders in name, attacking midfielders of a sort, but that is where the comparison ends. They are different styles of player.
Mount is a central midfielder, one who prefers to play as part of a midfield (usually in a three), someone who would define himself positionally as an eight.
Grealish has enjoyed his success at club level as an inside forward or number ten.

Jack Grealish of Aston Villa

Image credit: Getty Images

Could Grealish play in midfield for England?

The Mason Mount argument only becomes relevant if you consider Grealish as a genuine central midfield option for England.
Southgate clearly doesn’t, but should he?
It all depends how England plan to set up defensively going forward. If the team operates with three at the back and wing-backs then there will only be a two-man midfield and Grealish can’t conceivably operate as one of those two – not against the very best opponents anyway, which has to be the long-term aim of Southgate’s strategy.
However, if Southgate decides to go with four at the back and a midfield three then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Grealish could play as the more advanced of that three.
He certainly has the passing range for it, something that England are crying out for in midfield. And his work-rate and pressing ability is undervalued too – Grealish has recorded 26 interceptions since the summer of 2019 for example, more than Mount, James Maddison, Ross Barkley or Phil Foden (his likely rivals for such a role).
So yes, Grealish could play in midfield, if England go with a central three. But it’s also understandable why Southgate would be reticent to push him deeper in the system like that.
At the 2018 World Cup Southgate got around his lack of midfield options by asking Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to drop deeper and work as part of the central three. It worked to an extent and both did admirable jobs in unfamiliar positions, but that role didn’t play to either player’s strengths and ultimately it was in midfield where England were most exposed in the semi-final loss to Croatia.
If Southgate is wary of repeating that tactical move with Grealish then it’s not hard to see why.

Jack Grealish (L) and Declan Rice (R)

Image credit: Getty Images

What next?

In the short-term Grealish will likely continue for England as part of that front three, due in part to the dip in form of Sancho and Sterling as well as the absence of Rashford and Greenwood.
But in the long term, unless Grealish continues on his upward trajectory, the Villa man may have to get used to being in the squad rather than necessarily the first-team.
As for Southgate's latest comments, the England boss presumably thinks if he lavishes Grealish with praise now then he’ll just be creating a rod for his own back when he leaves him out later.
But the odd good word wouldn’t hurt.
For a manager who usually has good political judgement he’s proving extraordinarily poor at reading the room.
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