To Gareth Southgate, the comparison is, frankly, ludicrous. Managers tend to get annoyed when their players are likened to the greats of yesteryear or, at least, they try to downplay them and Southgate spoke with typical honesty about why Jack Grealish, who has man-of-the-moment status after a few excellent performances, ought not to be mentioned in the same breath as Paul Gascoigne. The talking point has floated around a little of late.
“I don’t want to be dampening the enthusiasm for Jack,” the England manager said. “When you’re talking about Gascoigne, there is not a player in English history who was at that level. I just feel that Gascoigne is so unique. It’s a bit like talking about Bobby Moore.” It is impossible to argue with Southgate about Gascoigne and he was also at pains to highlight Grealish’s qualities, namely the “fabulous ability to receive under pressure, to protect the ball, to dribble past people at a slightly different speed to some of our other players, the way he moves and draws fouls”. They were in evidence during the midfielder’s performance in Thursday night’s 3-0 friendly win over Wales.
At the same time, it remains possible to wonder whether Grealish is a fit for Southgate and the way he wants to attack, which is at pace and with an economy of touches. Call it realism but, in his overall tone, Southgate did dampen the enthusiasm for Grealish and it would be a surprise if he started with him against Belgium at Wembley on Sunday – in a Nations League tie that should provide a barometer of England’s current level. Belgium are the world’s No 1 ranked team.
Cautionary notes are a necessity for Southgate, with the world upside down and no real certainty about anything. England had been ready to attack the European Championship in June, there had been a sense of excitement but, after the postponement because of coronavirus, there does not seem to be the same feeling.
“The pandemic has thrown everyone’s plans up in the air so we have to be as adaptable as everyone else and able to respond in the right way as quickly as we can to establish a way of playing and establish some consistency in the team but that is going to be difficult,” Southgate said.
Southgate had been asked whether England could still dream of glory at the rearranged tournament next summer, which Wembley will part-host, but it is plainly not a time for tub-thumping, rather going day by day, game by game.
“Every time I pick up a paper, a team has lost another two or three important players so it becomes very difficult to know what you are going to deal with,” Southgate said. “I don’t think any country is thinking: ‘We’ve got everything where we want it now,’ only three international camps away from the finals. Everyone is thinking: ‘What is this going to look like? Will we even play next month? What will the team look like?’” For the record, the Football Association still expects England’s three November fixtures to go ahead – the friendly against New Zealand and the Nations League games against Belgium and Iceland.
It is tough for Southgate as he fights for a foothold in shifting sands and there is the impression of a manager looking for something new. He has moved to a 3-4-3 system in the last two games – the 0-0 in Denmark last month and then Wales – and it is a response, in part, to the lack of options at left-back.
With Luke Shaw and Danny Rose out of favour, Southgate can only really count on Ben Chilwell and, as has been well-documented, he cannot do that at present. Having breached the government’s “rule of six” by attending a party last Saturday and, according to Southgate, also “had some sort of illness”, Chilwell remains outside of the camp. The hope is that he can return a negative test and be reintegrated on either Sunday or Monday in time for Wednesday’s game against Denmark. Southgate has more options in terms of left wing-backs.
“Within any system, if you are going to play in a consistent way, which is helpful at international level because of the time you have with the players, then you need strength in depth in each position,” Southgate said. “We are trying to accentuate the strengths that we have and hide the weaknesses.”
The win over Wales with what amounted to a second string was encouraging; now Southgate wants a boost from his leading lights. Harry Maguire returns after you-know-what and will face scrutiny, particularly after his poor start to the season at Manchester United, and he will not be the only one.
Can Jadon Sancho, who was at the party for Tammy Abraham with Chilwell, make better decisions on the pitch? Southgate told the story of how the squad had given Marcus Rashford a round of applause at Saturday’s team meeting after he was awarded the MBE for his work in the fight against child food poverty. There are examples of positivity. England want one on the field against Belgium.