For Jack Grealish it really does seem to come down to freedom — in his mind, in his game, in the degree to which he is bound by tactical instruction . . . even off the pitch. When is it OK to get sozzled and have a great laugh in public? (Answer: when you have just won your first Premier League title.)
On Tuesday night in Munich Grealish strutted into a situation that felt made for him. England had been second best against Germany for 70 minutes, firing only in fits and starts, wobbly at the back, lacking progressive rhythm and incision. One-nil down, Gareth Southgate turned to Grealish, sending him on with the instruction to express himself, to make something happen. With a flourish the winger did so.
Grealish transformed England with his substitute’s cameo, increasing the tempo, lifting the mood. He drove from the left, fizzing his passes and crosses. He teed up Harry Kane for a huge chance that Manuel Neuer saved, then looked for him in the move that led to the penalty, from which Kane equalised. He also cut back for Kane in stoppage time when the captain almost nicked victory.
“I feel sometimes when I’m here [with England] I can try and play with as much freedom as possible – I felt like I did that,” Grealish said. Which rather invited the follow-up question. Had he not played with said freedom at Manchester City after his £100m move from Aston Villa last summer?
“I do think that, yeah,” Grealish replied. “I feel at times I’ve played a bit safe at City but when I come here I feel like even in training I train really well. Score goals, get assists and whatnot. When I come on the pitch … it’s hard to explain. I do feel like I play with a lot more freedom here and hopefully I can transfer that into my club football and keep on improving.”
Grealish has not had the season he hoped for at City, even if it ended in domestic glory, and the numbers tell the story: 22 Premier League starts; three goals, three assists. He added three goals and one assist in the other competitions.
Pep Guardiola’s obsession with control is well documented; the need to instil those patterns to create a beautifully calibrated whole. But to listen to Grealish describe Southgate and how he differs from Guardiola seems to go against popular perception.
“Of course they’re two different managers so it’s always going to be difficult,” Grealish said. “Pep’s a lot more structured. You can’t complain because of what he’s done in the game, how successful he is. Whereas Gareth is more, whatever you think [about him] …
“Obviously you have a formation and a structure but he says to me: ‘If you feel like you need to go to the other side of the pitch to get the ball then go and do that.’ That’s not really part of the freedom, the freedom is more in myself. Hopefully I can try to transfer that to City.”
It continues to feel as though Southgate does not fully trust Grealish in his starting XI. “At the start of the game the challenge to the wide players is to attack, defend, try to score goals, a high tactical level and you’ve got to be spot on,” Southgate said. “I think that’s an area Jack can get better at.”
But Southgate is happy to foster Grealish’s off-the-cuff style when needs must, particularly when he is supported by a solid platform. Grealish was asked whether he spoke to Guardiola at the end of the season and he moved his answer on to Southgate and England. “I didn’t speak to him [Guardiola],” Grealish said.
“Obviously I’ll speak to him next season when I get back but I’m fine, honestly. I’m enjoying myself at City. I love coming away here [with England], honestly, and I’ve said so many times, I think sometimes … especially the manager, people are too harsh on him.
“The game in Hungary on Saturday, for example. We lost for the first time in I don’t know how long and there’s a bit of a palaver. It’s like: ‘We’ve lost a game, it happens.’ One thing I can say he’s done – when we come away here, everyone loves it, from the staff to the players. We all get on like a family. That’s why we’ve been so successful over the last couple of years.”
Grealish mentioned how City had “a laugh and a joke about certain stuff” at their title-winning parade … “that’s the game, just stuff about ourselves”. A little the worse for wear, Grealish had grabbed the microphone to poke fun at Bernardo Silva and some of his other teammates.
“I had six or seven days off so I enjoyed it – that’s what I like to do,” Grealish said. “Why not? It was the right time and the right place to enjoy it. How did it feel to win the title? Honestly, it was one of the best days ever. It’s something I’ll never, ever forget because it was my first.
“I don’t know if I feel different, just happier, and hopefully it’s a bit of relief off my shoulders because I’ve always said that I’ve come to City to win stuff. Hopefully there’s more to come.”