Jack Grealish could not hide the frustration. And nor could pockets of the England support inside Wembley on Tuesday night, some of whom booed the decision. There were 62 minutes on the clock, the team were level at 1-1 with Hungary and Gareth Southgate had substituted Grealish, replacing him with Bukayo Saka.
The TV cameras lingered on Grealish as he took his seat. The midfielder shook his head before putting it down and running his fingers through his hair.
It was the night when Southgate tried a different blend, dispensing with his usual minimum of six defensive-minded starters and going with five whose first instinct is to attack. It was Phil Foden and Mason Mount as the No 8s in the 4-3-3, leaving only Declan Rice in front of the defence, and there is no doubt that it was what the fans had demanded.
Southgate himself had said on Monday that he had wanted to experiment with the extra attack-minded midfielder since the start of last season but that the time had never really been right.
This was it, the stars having aligned, and yet it all fell flat. England were too open for Southgate’s liking, unable to press with the required cohesion while they laboured to get through Hungary’s compact 3-4-3 setup, in which the two central midfielders, Adam Nagy and Andras Schafer, were extremely tight to Foden and Mount.
When Southgate sought to redress the balance, it was surprising and significant that his first move was to replace Grealish. Working off the left wing, Grealish had been England’s most involved attacking threat, even if the overall pickings were slim. He had certainly contributed more than Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, who were both out of sorts. They were substituted on 75 minutes.
Grealish combined well with Luke Shaw at times in the first half, releasing the left-back early on with a flick that led to a cross and a sniff for Kane. And it was Grealish who carried the ball with the most intent, challenging those who tracked him, trying to pull Hungary out of shape.
Grealish looks dejected at his substitution. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock
He won the free-kick that led to John Stones’s equaliser after a crossfield run from left to right but it is this desire to roam, to play off the cuff, that can put Grealish slightly at odds with Southgate’s structures. That is particularly true without the ball, even if the manager says that Grealish has improved a good deal in this regard over the past 12 months.
What Southgate wants to see from his team in an attacking sense is players getting in behind opposing defences. The benchmark is the 3-2 Nations League win over Spain in Seville in October 2018, when Kane dropped off to spring Sterling and Marcus Rashford through. It was a counterattacking masterclass.
Grealish prefers to face the last line with the ball at his feet, to use his explosiveness. With technical players around him, such as Foden and Mount, England have to rely on more intricate combinations which, against well-organised teams, can feel harder to execute. Southgate clearly believed that he needed Saka’s greater pace against Hungary.
The bottom line with a non-systems man is that he had better bring the numbers, which is what Grealish did for Aston Villa last season. He finished with seven goals and 12 assists from 27 appearances (he was out for three months towards the end because of injury) and it was why Southgate found a home for him in the England squad.
This time out, after Grealish’s British record £100m move to Manchester City, he has two goals and two assists from 10 appearances but Southgate is aware that he is just starting out at the club. Grealish must adapt to the complexities of playing under Pep Guardiola.
With England, it is one goal and five assists from 17 caps, the goal coming against Andorra on Saturday. There were two huge assists during the Euro 2020 finals – against the Czech Republic and Germany – but has it added up to consistent end product? With Grealish, there is the sense that he has to produce a lot to justify himself, that being such a lovely player to watch is not enough. Southgate’s demands on him can feel a little unforgiving.