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With four minutes to play at Wembley, with a feeling of the air shooting up out of the stadium, possibilities folding in on themselves, with the kilted men in the stands already on their feet, arms spread in a swell of fond, goalless-draw triumphalism, Jack Grealish took a pass and was followed right the way back into his own half by Stephen O’Donnell. Grealish turned and twisted and feinted, like a seahorse twirling across the coral, and eventually drew a knee to the thigh from an exasperated O’Donnell, who was booked as he sprinted back.
It is always tempting to see signs and flags. It will be tempting for England fans, Jack fans, those who identify as pro-Grealo and anti-Gareth – because these are binary times and even here we find our oppositions – to imagine that same sequence taking place an hour and a half earlier, when the game was still fluid, and England’s attacking patterns not yet congealed into something damp and soggy and unhappy.
By now, though, the game was set, that moment gone. It might still be there for England in this tournament. But there will now be pressure to resist, and choices to be made. And they will, as ever, coalesce around Grealish.
It is tempting to conclude that England’s patterns were disrupted at Wembley as an unchanged attack and midfield dished up a performance of gathering entropy against an excellent Scottish team. It would be tempting to say that Scotland found a way to interrupt the flow, that this was an act of will from an opponent driven by woad-smeared folk memories, McAllister’s revenge, the sacking of Hendry.
But that wouldn’t really be true. England’s attacking patterns came pre-disrupted, something that was evident from the opening exchanges when suddenly it became clear what kind of night this was. There are many strands to this, a sense of choices made further back, options reviewed and discarded. Southgate is a defensive coach. His attack is his strength.
This sense of unease goes much further back than an awkward night when England chased and passed in a gathering daze. But Southgate undoubtedly made a mistake by not picking Grealish from the start for an occasion that seemed to be crying out for a little brio and ballsiness in the middle of all the mannered and diligent running. And of course, the mood now will turn.
To pick Jack or not to pick Jack? An hour before kick-off the absence of Jack of the People from the starting XI had already generated its own electricity, with the words “Grealish”, “Jack Grealish” and #Southgateout instant trends on social media.
But then Grealish sits on a faultline in Southgate’s own public image, his roundhead persona, his defensive bent, his lack of popular appeal, his boyish deputy headmaster shtick. Grealish is loose and fun and obviously, cinematically brilliant. Grealish is a scallywag, a charisma merchant, and here England struggled on exactly the kind of night – wet, messy, jumpy – when he might have flourished.
At kick-off the sky above this vast echoey concrete bowl had turned a sallow deep grey. The skies opened, drenching the players in a thrilling sheen of floodlit drizzle. And England were flat. It took 10 minutes to string anything even resembling a moment of cohesion.
Deprived of any fluency, scratching around for some standing start inspiration, England looked insipid, nice, a little passive. There has always been a caveat with this group. But you do look at them, in their weaker period and wonder about things like leadership and dominant personalities when the game turns rough and the night gets away from them.
Sometimes you need another kind of presence. Instead England shrunk. They puzzled and fretted.
There was simply no flow, no feeling of any grown-ups on the pitch. Something desperate has happened to the basic vigour, pep, zip and simple attacking movement of Harry Kane, who was a semi‑interested observer at Wembley, puzzled to find a football match taking place around him.
England were booed off at half‑time, and walked off dutifully. And with 28 minutes still to play Grealish, who isn’t the answer to everything, who is simply one answer, a good answer, was dealt the task of coming on to change all this.
Kane had touched the ball 14 times at that point. Phil Foden had once again spent the night spinning around on his wrong foot, twirling himself into the ground. If England had no flow that this is a flaw that stretches back up the arm and into choices, omission, preferences set much earlier in the piece.
England have three goals in four matches now. Something has been lost here. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips to roam the midfield, a little aimlessly, and right to the final whistle, as Grealish and Luke Shaw bumped around in the same space. What you wondered was the attacking plan here?
There will be trial by Grealish in the days before the final group game against the Czechs. There will be a call to regear this team,, to reconfigure the attack around the maverick element in it is ranks. Southgate will surely resist it, and England will progress from here all the same, because this is a resilient group.
But the sense of something being missed, of possibilities passed up will remain. This England team found their edges, the end of their reach at Wembley. If there is sadness it is in the fact they seem to have become grey and a little deathly at just the wrong moment.