Grealish a surprise but absence of Harry Maguire will hurt England more | David Hytner

Estimated read time 6 min read

Inevitably, the headlines focused on Jack Grealish, as did plenty of the discussion with Gareth Southgate after what had been a horribly trying 24 hours or so. Nobody has ever pretended that to be the England manager is straightforward. Picking a squad for a major tournament is a time to reinforce that.

This time last year, Grealish was preparing for the Champions League final as an integral part of Pep Guardiola’s starting Manchester City team. It was the third and final step towards treble-winning immortality which, as everybody knows, he and the team took.

Similarly, everyone will recall the three-night bender that it triggered in nightspots from Istanbul to Ibiza to Manchester – in that order. When Grealish reported for England duty at the very end of the season, he admitted he was still hungover.

So, what had gone wrong for Grealish this season to leave him in the position where he knew, deep down, that the bad news which Southgate imparted after day’s training session was coming? Plainly, he has not been the same player. That is the short answer. All of his numbers are down. He has not been as prominently involved for City. And Southgate was never going to elaborate on cause and effect from the previous campaign to this.

It was not the time for that. Rather it was one for empathy, and that extended to James Maddison, who has followed a similar arc to Grealish – just compressed into a single season. After his move from Leicester to Tottenham last summer, it was difficult to imagine how things could have gone any better for Maddison as he starred in his new club’s surge to the top of the table. And then everything changed when he was badly injured against Chelsea in early November.

After three months out, Maddison was not able to recapture his best levels. Like Grealish, he was vulnerable. He knew it. And if there is one thing that has shaped Southgate’s approach to this tournament, it is that he has not shied from the difficult decisions. Ask two of his stalwarts – Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford, who were cut at the provisional squad stage. This, on the back of Southgate’s gentle but ruthless phasing out of Raheem Sterling.

The mood around the England camp in recent days has been edgy because everybody has been waiting for unhappy tidings. If it was not coming for a particular player, it was for a teammate and friend. It has an effect. Declan Rice spoke emotionally about the departure of Grealish and Maddison, his two closest friends in the set-up. Southgate admitted that, with Friday night’s Wembley send-off against Iceland looming, he simply could not wait any longer. And so began the difficult one-on-one conversations.

Harry Maguire watches England’s training session on Thursday, before it was confirmed that a calf injury would rule him out of the squad.View image in fullscreen

It had to be easier for Southgate to tell James Trafford and Jarell Quansah, Jarrad Branthwaite and Curtis Jones that they would not be a part of it; their time will come in the future. But as the dust settled, as Southgate banged the drum for a new England, a squad completely reshaped from the 2022 World Cup, 13 of the squad new from that tournament, it was hard to ignore the reality that Harry Maguire was the biggest story.

Lower profile than Grealish, certainly. But unlike him, Maguire would certainly have started in Germany. And his absence will fundamentally change how England approach the ties.

There will doubtless be a corner of the internet where Maguire’s injury-enforced absence will be celebrated. At last, Southgate can pick a faster partner for John Stones in central defence, England will be able to set themselves higher, less worried about the ball in behind. That partner will probably be Marc Guéhi, one of four Crystal Palace players in the squad. Southgate also namechecked Lewis Dunk and Ezri Konsa.

On the other hand, Southgate will lose other things in Maguire’s absence – aerial power in both boxes, strong-arm one-on-one defending, leadership. Southgate said at the last Euros, staged in 2021, that he had four “tribal elders” in his group – Harry Kane, Maguire, Henderson and Sterling. Only one remains.

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It will be incumbent on the older players to pick up the slack. Kane, as captain; Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Jordan Pickford, Stones and Luke Shaw, as well. But also for a fast emerging set to step up – Rice, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden. Rice was able to joke that he was now the old man of the midfield.

It can sometimes feel as if Maguire is endlessly lampooned but that overlooks how, quietly, he has been one of the comeback stories of the season, having begun it at the bottom of the pecking order at Manchester United and endured a personal nightmare for England against Scotland. By 7 November, he won a recall at United and, when fit, he has since been a virtual fixture in the starting XI.

Maguire’s body has betrayed him at the last. Southgate said that as the player recovered from a calf injury and having had setbacks, he would not have been available during the group stage. And probably not match fit for a while after that.

With Trippier feeling his way back from injury and Shaw only expected to return from his muscle problem as a substitute in the second tie, Southgate felt he could not take an extra covering defender for fear of weakening the squad elsewhere. Maguire felt the squeeze and it was even worse because he did not see it coming. Shaw was the only gamble he felt he could take.

And so the theme of cruelty rubbed up against the excitement and anticipation, the latter fired mainly by the youthful cut and thrust of Cole Palmer, Eberechi Eze and Anthony Gordon in attacking areas; the staggering rise of Adam Wharton further back in midfield. It is a time for new connections to be made, for another test of the culture that Southgate has instilled. He will be happy to look forward.


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