FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - International Friendly - England v Republic of Ireland - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - November 12, 2020 England manager Gareth Southgate after the match (REUTERS)
England manager Gareth Southgate said there were many positives to take from a 2-0 defeat in Belgium that ended his side’s hopes of reaching the Nations League finals, none more so than the display of Jack Grealish.
With Raheem Sterling ruled out because of a calf injury, the Aston Villa playmaker started his first competitive international and was England’s stand-out performer.
Playing behind striker Harry Kane in a 3-4-3 formation, Grealish made several trademark runs and looked to be England’s most creative player against the top-ranked Belgians.
If Southgate had doubts about the Villa man before, he now knows the 25-year-old can make the step up.
“I thought Jack Grealish had an absolutely outstanding game,” Southgate said. “Losing Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, we lose a lot of speed. But I can’t fault the attacking play until the last chance.
“We created far more opportunities than we did at Wembley. I saw what I knew I would see from Jack, someone with the bravery to play. He took the ball in tight areas, his technique was good, we knew he would buy a lot of free kicks.
“I thought he was outstanding, he should be delighted. Today was a great game for us to see him in. I couldn’t speak highly enough of his performance.
“He played with huge belief and character.”
Grealish said he watched videos of Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne in the days leading up to the game.
“The last 24 hours I have been watching clips of my favourite players. I do that every game. I have been buzzing,” he said.
“The most difficult thing is trying to get the chemistry with the team mates. When you come here you only have 10 days to build that. It just clicks with some players though.”
While Grealish impressed, England’s lack of goals in their group (three in five games) is a worry.
Southgate’s preference to play with Jordan Henderson alongside Declan Rice at the base of midfield looks conservative while the system robbed England of a cutting edge with Kane often dropping back deep, rather than hunting in the box.
Southgate insisted, however, that England’s formation was not a problem.
“We created problems with the ball and defended resiliently. I’ve got praise for all of the players,” he said. “I’m not sure we could have been any more creative than we were tonight.
“Against the very best teams, the games are tight. We’ve had 10 or 11 debutants across this autumn period. Good and bad, we’ve learnt a lot about a lot of people.”
Liverpool’s Henderson was taken off at halftime as a precaution because of some “tightness” Southgate said, while Ben Chilwell, who was substituted in the first half, had a back problem. Southgate also confirmed Sterling would not be fit to face Iceland in their last Nations League game on Wednesday.
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