Grealish was often England’s most advanced player in the first 45 minutes
Raheem Sterling’s first-half header gave England victory against Czech Republic and ensured they topped Group D.
Here, Chief Football Writer Sam Wallace studies who made the difference for England – and where.
Grealish does the unexpected – in unexpected places
The famously low-socked conjuror plays off the left for Aston Villa which lends itself to his predominantly right-footed game although that was not where Southgate began with him. Instead Grealish lined up as a typical No 10 in a 4-2-3-1 system and then switched positions with Sterling who began the game on the left. More unusual was that Grealish was England’s most advanced player in the first half in terms of average position, as the touch map shows, and there were other changes to his game too.
Runs in behind
He pressed ferociously at times, with one hectic pursuit of man and ball in the 26th minute catching the attention of the home crowd at Wembley, who liked what they saw. There were also occasions when Grealish travelled more quickly than usual with the ball, carrying it into the kind of areas where to challenge him would most likely be to foul him and present England with a dangerous dead-ball situation. His trademark short-stride running had the Czechs backing off.
His best moment in the game was his assist for Sterling’s goal. That was unusual because it saw him get to the byline on the left side where there was no choice but to use his weaker foot. He did so beautifully, chipping the ball over the main group of defenders to pick out Sterling at the back post for the header.
Southgate called it right when it came to taking Grealish out the game. He was replaced by Bellingham with 23 minutes of regulation time left and the teenager gave the extra energy to disrupt the Czechs when they were on the ball. By then England had good strength in their shape and they just needed to push back in higher positions. Southgate clearly still nurtures doubts over Grealish – how long he lingers in possession and how useful he is winning it back when the team loses it. Judging by his performance, Grealish seems to know that better than anyone.
Saka fixes England’s imbalance
The Arsenal man was another significant selection triumph for Southgate who has clearly seen much more in Saka over the last four weeks than he has Sancho, and decided to go with his instinct. The 19-year-old Saka, a composed character in his short career so far, said that Southgate had simply told him to “express myself and play the way I do for my club” and the performance he delivered reflected that.
In England’s first two matches at the tournament there had been a notable left-sided bias; on Tuesday night, attacks were spread almost evenly between right and left flanks. The key difference was Saka, who broke the Czech lines and ultimately created the goal. He ran at Jan Boril, the Czech Republic and Slavia Prague full-back whom the teenager has encountered before. Boril was substituted at half-time of the 4-0 home defeat to Arsenal in April in the Europa League – in which Saka scored the third Arsenal goal. Second time around was no easier for Boril.
Where England attacked
He said later that he had only been told by Southgate in the morning that he was starting the game. As soon as he had got a feel for the ball it was obvious that he would be dangerous. The Czechs tried to double up on him when they could to protect the left side. England looked at their most dangerous when they won possession and attacked swiftly and Saka, quick and intuitive, was effective in those moments.
Given the positions Saka got into on the offside line, trying to anticipate the ball in behind the Czechs, it felt like he might have been played in more often than he was over the course of the game. The full-backs he has to face will only get better if England progress through the tournament. Although young as he is, Saka has always been able to adapt to the next level of competition.
Settled shape kept Czechs at bay
Three games and no goals conceded. England have worked on their defensive shape and they made it very hard for the Czechs to find spaces that they could exploit between the back four, or between the defence and the two shielding defensive midfielders.
Before he came off at half-time, Rice dropped in between Stones and Maguire to take the ball from Pickford and try to help build the passing move out of the Czech press. At the start, when they were fresher, the Czechs pressed England’s defence hard and it was notable how many times Pickford had no choice but to kick the ball long. The goalkeeper took the initiative when he decided it had become too dangerous.
It was obvious from an early stage that the Czechs would be dangerous from free-kicks and corners and the fewer of those that England conceded, the better it would be for them. When the the ball did come into the England box, Maguire in particular was excellent. Southgate’s decision to stick with the recovering Manchester United defender was vindicated. This was a conservative performance from England but from a defensive point of view it was encouraging. Just one attempt on target all game for the Czechs and none for their top goalscorer Patrick Schick, who was substituted.