The spotlight will be on Jack Grealish as he takes to the field for England against the Republic of Ireland, and not just because it is the first meeting of the two nations since he switched allegiances. Gareth Southgate admits that he is aware of the “memes” being posted with the manager talking about Mason Mount when asked a question concerning the Aston Villa captain.
“I suppose on that you’re referring to Mason, whose only crime is not to be Jack at the moment,” the England manager joked when asked about the debate as to whether Grealish deserves a competitive start – and not just a friendly appearance – and how this has maybe led to criticism of other players.
“I’m also aware I should talk about Mason because then it keeps the memes going of me talking about Mason,” Southgate light-heartedly added. “So we have got to fulfil all those requirements just to keep the Villa fans happy, especially. What would they be able to do on social media if they didn’t have that opportunity? So, yes, of course I’m aware Jack’s playing well.”
Indeed, more seriously, Southgate stated “we’re not blind to a good player” in Grealish and for this friendly he has found a solution to the 25-year-old and Mount, four years his junior, supposedly competing for the same place. Instead they will both play, with Mount asked to fulfil “a slightly different role” in the centre of midfield where England remain short of options.
Grealish will ask himself whether, if he produces another man-of-the-match performance, it will be enough. Being the best player in his first start, the friendly against Wales last month, did not earn him a single minute in the two subsequent competitive fixtures, against Belgium and Denmark. That provoked the debate, especially with England appearing to lack creativity and a player with his unique skill-set.
Grealish is expected to be a key component of the team who face Ireland, with that added ingredient that he is playing against the nation he represented up until the Under-21s, making 19 appearances. But, having officially switched to England in 2016, Grealish had to wait more than four years to make his debut, which came as a 76th-minute substitute in the dreary Nations League goalless draw away to Denmark in September.
Grealish knows that he would have earned many caps had he remained with Ireland and been their jewel, while for England he has the task of convincing Southgate he is worth selecting for games that matter: the Nations League tie away to Belgium on Sunday and the final group game at home to Iceland next Wednesday.
The Football Association should find out on Thursday whether that tie will be moved to a neutral venue in Germany due to coronavirus restrictions.
There was encouragement for Grealish in Southgate’s pre-match appraisal. “After Christmas, Jack was 22 games and one goal,” Southgate said. “We knew 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 the way [Phil] Foden had played at the end of lockdown, and we knew what [Marcus] Rashford and [Raheem] Sterling had produced.
“So, now he’s now four goals in seven matches, plus one cleared off the line against Leeds, one cleared off the line against Arsenal, creating chances – the goal he created the other day where he’s holding [Hector] Bellerin off and able to find the pass while running at full tilt.
“I think we’ve challenged him on a couple of parts of his game and his response to that has been brilliant. I still think that some of the other players we’re talking about are very good players as well and I think it’s a shame that, Mason in particular, there seems criticism of him at his club as well in a similar way.”
Southgate highlighted the backing Mount received from Sky pundit Graeme Souness and “a lot of top managers” and stressed that he and Grealish “can both be important players for England”. The same will apply, he argued, with Jude Bellingham, having handed the 17-year-old a surprise call-up to replace the injured James Ward-Prowse.
“It’s always interesting to see the reaction when we select a player, because people are immediately talking about other players without understanding why we’ve called Jude up,” Southgate said.
“We could flippantly say, ‘Well, he’s playing for a massive club and he’s playing Champions League football’, but there’s actually a bit more to it than that. Positionally he’s playing in a two-man midfield at Dortmund, whether that’s a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3. So, he’s in the exact position that we lost a player in James.”
Bellingham, Southgate said, is there for “an opportunity to work with us” but is still expected to make his debut off the bench against the Irish.