Jack Grealish’s cameo in Munich reminds England of their better selves | Nations League

For all the minor chords around this current run of close-season internationals, the sense of something frazzled and desiccated at the end of a gruelling year, there was a light, fun quality to this 1-1 draw in Munich.

This was a breezy game that meant nothing, that ended all square, but which still threw up its own subplots in the shape of Harry and Jack, two England players who are currently auditioning for their own parts in England’s plan of attack.

Germany in Munich is always going to be fist-pumping alpha-dog stuff, and the the Allianz Arena was a lovely spectacle at kick-off, an eggshell sky peering in through the oval space portal in the roof of this vast alien doughnut ditched on the outfits of Munich. These England breaks can work as a tonic too, something restorative. For Harry Maguire in particular this England camp has been cast by some as a kind of retreat, a find-yourself-again camp. The noises will fade. The lights will guide you home. And I, Gareth, will try to fix you.

It was a big night in other ways for Jack Grealish, another player in need of a little love, who came on for the final 20 minutes with England trailing and changed the game just enough. And they were poor here in patches, resembling at times a team that have become a little stuck.

Gareth Southgate went for a back four here, the classic early noughties 4-2-3-1 which has been a little overlooked by him as he fiddles with the details of his defensive formations. It seemed to drain some of England’s ease in possession, not helped by the speed and fury of Germany’s early pressing. The back five played 30 long passes in the first half. It didn’t feel like the future.

England were 1-0 down, and deservedly so, when Grealish came on to play wide on the left and instantly lifted the mood. It is easy to forget this side of him as he knuckles down into his Pep version, learning to become a systems player, losing the Jack edges, the Jack corners, chasing so diligently, like a Labrador trying to be good.

Harry Maguire brings down Kai Havertz.
Harry Maguire brings down Kai Havertz. Photograph: Nigel Keene/ProSports/Shutterstock

It’s easy to forget what an expressive, fun presence he is, with the sense of something locked in there, some attacking power we still haven’t really seen the full extent of. Perhaps he can still find it. And Grealish played like a duke here, all hair-flicking brio, running with his head up, and producing his best 20 minutes for England – all the more so as it came just when his manager really needed it. It was Grealish who helped to make England’s equalizer. Harry Kane stretched for his pass, but wasn’t going to get the ball. Cleverly, he allowed Nico Schlotterbeck to foul him. And Kane was always going to score the penalty kick.

At the other end of the pitch there was another kind of reckoning going on. This was a difficult game for Maguire, at a time when he is essentially playing for his place in this team, playing out a version of how England have set up for the last five years.

Maguire did good things. He’s a good close defender. He blocks shots and intercepts crosses. He won more headers than anyone else on the pitch. But at times he just got lost. With 22 minutes gone something terrible happened. Isolated against Kai Havertz under a long straight ball he tried to grapple and grab rather than turn and run, and simply fell over, fouling himself, fouling Havertz, stopped playing anything that looked like football.

There was a slip too for Hofmann’s goal. It feels harsh to pick on mistakes that have been forced by clever movement, and this was what happened here, as Maguire was pulled out of the center of defense by Havertz, following the Chelsea man as he dropped deep. It was a classic one-two. Hofmann dropped into the space Maguire had just left, and waited, locked and loaded and ready to go. Havertz laid the ball to Joshua Kimmich, who played the perfect instant pass. And suddenly there it was, the white shirt free in front of goal, Maguire, whose space that was, really, turning like a fully laden coal schooner struggling against an estuary tide.

And Maguire will remain a problem, or at least a structural issue. Southgate’s loyalty is based in the fact he has played well in the past. But his lack of speed means the back three becomes England’s safe space, means the defensive line is deep not daringly high, opening up England’s midfield to the kind of slick, clever movement Germany showed at times here.

A draw felt fair by the end. Ilkay Gündogan had run the midfield all game, a footballer so cerebral you half expect to look down and notice he’s playing in a lab coat. But there were hints here, nudges for Southgate. England have looked a little over-ripe at times recently. That cameo from Grealish was, if nothing else, a reminder of their best selves.

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