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The last time England were heading to a men’s major tournament there was one player who divided opinion.
Jack Grealish was England’s enigma.
Full of talent and creativity, Grealish was a fan favourite but for manager Gareth Southgate there was a constant conundrum. Where do you play him and who does he replace?
Grealish, 27, made one start and four substitute appearances as England reached the final before losing to Italy in a penalty shootout at Euro 2020.
A month later, Premier League champions Manchester City signed him from Aston Villa for a British record £100m.
But as England prepare to take on Iran in their first match at the 2022 World Cup on Monday, the forward is seemingly no closer to becoming a starter.
“I knew he would be in the squad but I don’t think he is anywhere near starting,” former Manchester City and England defender Micah Richards told BBC Sport.
“He has played well but has not been amazing for City. His numbers will count against him.
“I don’t always look at numbers – I watch the game – but look at what [Leicester midfielder] James Maddison is doing. He is making and scoring goals.
“Sometimes you can’t ignore numbers and form in the lead up to a tournament.”
‘Grealish needs to be able to roam’
In Grealish’s first season with Manchester City he won the Premier League title but scored just three goals in 26 appearances.
This season, he has netted one in eight league games.
“Jack is very good at being involved in the game and drawing fouls and starting attacks off, but needs to do more,” added Richards.
“If you look at who scores for England, it is not that many people who get the goals. Someone like Maddison could do that, but Jack still has to have more end product.”
Aside from end product, is Southgate’s style of play holding Grealish back?
Former England defender Rio Ferdinand said Grealish was a player who “needs to be able to roam”.
“I’m not sure England let him do that. The best Jack Grealish is the one who has a bit of freedom,” Ferdinand told BBC Sport.
“At international level you need those players like him who have that imagination and ability to unlock teams. He could be vital in that.”
There have been glimpses of what Grealish is capable of for England including an impressive cameo in June as England drew 1-1 with Germany in Munich.
Afterwards Grealish said he wanted to transfer the freedom he felt while playing for England to his club form with Manchester City.
However, ex-England midfielder Jermaine Jenas suggested Grealish may not be starting because other players provide different qualities.
“I love Jack but it is a functional thing and how he fits in with the other players in Southgate’s team,” Jenas told BBC Sport.
“It is not always about having all your best players on the pitch. Sometimes it is a case of deciding who brings what to the table.
“Right now, Jack is in better form than Raheem Sterling, but the reality is, Raheem runs in behind defences.”
‘Southgate knows what he’s getting from Sterling’
There is competition for places in Grealish’s position.
Maddison has earned a call-up to the World Cup squad after scoring seven goals and assisting four in 13 games for Leicester in the Premier League this season.
Manchester City’s Phil Foden has seven goals and three assists, while Bukayo Saka has four goals and six assists for league leaders Arsenal.
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford is in the squad having scored just once in his last eight Premier League games. Sterling, who joined Chelsea this summer, has also struggled for form but is tried and tested with England, contributing to 44 goals in 79 appearances.
With England captain Harry Kane a certain starter at number nine, is there any room for Grealish?
“That is the thing with England in that position, there is good competition,” said Ferdinand.
“You can play Grealish there, you have got Sterling, Rashford, Foden and Maddison too. That’s good news for England, but not such good news for Jack.”
Jenas added: “Kane comes to get the ball and you have Saka on one side who likes to drift inside as well as dribble a lot – so you need someone who wants to run without the ball.
“Jack just wants to stay on the touchline and dribble, a bit like Saka does, so you need that balance of everything.
“Gareth Southgate knows what he is getting from Sterling – he turns up when he puts on an England shirt.”