Many outsiders view Dean Smith’s Aston Villa as this season’s Premier League surprise package, with an identity built on key partnerships, an insatiable work-rate and individual quality, much of which stems from talisman Jack Grealish
With bare calves flashing, a slicked back undercut and number ten hanging off his back, Grealish’s unique style has become commonplace at Villa Park, and now top-flight onlookers have come accustomed to lauding his performances in the past 18 months.
It might not have come as a surprise to Villa fans that their poster boy would soon draw comparisons to Eden Hazard or Joe Cole of yesteryear – but as Premier League icons scrambled for superlatives to label England’s new Gazza-like prodigy, Robert Pires might’ve given the highest praise of them all.
“Jack is a great footballer with a good technique – and I love watching him play because he reminds me of Dennis Bergkamp,” former Villa man and Arsenal invincible, Pires said.
“I like to see him playing in the same position as Dennis, as a No.10. He has great vision, he isn’t a selfish player because he always wants to do what is best for the team, and I think he has a great future.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on Jack because he is still a young player learning the game and Dennis was an incredible talent and a champion. But Grealish is a very complete player and I think the key for him is to keep playing like he enjoys his football.”
Boy wonder, soon to be crowned a club legend, the past year has been a struggle for us all but watching a kid living the dream made us all fall back in love with football, watching him every weekend is the escape many of us have craved. He’s the local lad leading Villa’s assault on English football’s elite.
From his tender years, Grealish showcased his abilities and so big things were expected of him. This was further extenuated when the club gave up it’s Premier League ever-present mantle and the burden of expectation was thrust upon his young shoulders.
The quest for promotion was very much a personal battle for Jack and he stepped up to the challenge square on, acting as the driving force for promotion under Steve Bruce before Dean Smith – occupying a creative role in the hole behind Lewis Grabban, then Tammy Abraham.
Season in, season out, Grealish’s impact at Villa Park has been unmatched, arguably becoming the single most important player to any football club over the past two years. Wearing the captain’s armband and performing to a level that exceeds his reputation across the country, the debate if he’s fit to wear the Three Lions shirt is now indisputable.
In Southgate’s September internationals squad selection, the national team boss had to contend with injuries to key midfielders Jordan Henderson, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dele Alli, forcing the selection of an inexperienced group. Grealish’s first cap for England was in sight.
“I’m very conscious I’ve got to get the balance right because ultimately my responsibility is to produce a winning England team,” Southgate admitted back in 2018.
“I never pick on reputation – form has to come into it. You have to look at the opposition and the type of game you’re expecting and select the players best suited to that.”
Though after performing at the peak of his powers through the 18 months leading up to the start of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign, Grealish’s initial absence left fans scratching their heads across the country, not just the ‘biased’ few in Birmingham.
Grealish was no doubt just as surprised as every Villa fan in Erdington, Perry Barr and Sutton Coldfield when he didn’t receive that long-awaited phone call. Villa’s captain has come on leaps and bounds over the past three years, and along the way, many have tipped him for the top after witnessing his talent first hand.
Joe Cole spent two years at Villa Park towards the end of his career and realised Grealish’s potential immediately.
“I think he’s the type that can pull on any shirt and it wouldn’t be too heavy for him,” said Cole.
“I include the England shirt with that. His England career has been a long time coming for various reasons but no shirt would be too heavy for Jack. He’d be able to wear it.”
Cole was another stylish midfielder prone to the curse of not knowing how to use his flair and guile in an England shirt. The uniquely talented tens so often produced on the continent have rarely blossomed since the likes of Paul Gascoigne, though as we await to see what the shirt holds for Grealish, his England career was about to take off.
Following the withdrawal of Marcus Rashford from Gareth Southgate’s squad in September, Grealish was drafted in to cover an extensive injury list, in particular from the left-wing – the position where Grealish has discovered his best form in a Villa shirt.
Versatile Grealish flourishes from the flanks
For the first time under Smith, Grealish started wide of a front-three, alongside Wesley and in front of Conor Hourihane who added some attacking intent in a home tie against Burnley last season. Grealish would notch five-goal contributions in six appearances following a 2-2 draw at Villa Park against Sean Dyche’s men towards the end of 2019.
Villa boss Smith said: “He can play a number of positions.
“He can play as part of a two in midfield, play as a 10, play as an eight when we play a one and two (an attacking midfielder behind two strikers), he can play left, he can play right.
“I just feel at the moment, for the balance of the team, it (left-wing) is a really good position for him. That’s the thing a mature Jack knows now, that he is doing a job for the team by being there.
“I feel he gives the opposition problems when he gets on the ball and runs at them.”
Smith’s assistant, John Terry, who enjoyed the luxury of playing alongside and now caching Villa’s star man, also drew comparisons to some of the division’s best from over the years.
“I think he’s similar to Joe Cole and Eden Hazard,” Terry explained.
“I just think the natural ability he’s got and that Joe Cole had, a God-given talent that not many people are blessed with but he’s certainly got.
“The way he glides past people. He’s quick, but not many people know it – I don’t think he knows how quick he is. He’s a tremendous talent, he gets a lot of fouls in the Championship and now in the Premier League.
“People don’t know how to stop him!”
In the past five seasons, there is only one other player who averages more than 0.2 expected goals and expected assists, four take-ons and three fouls won per 90 minutes: Hazard in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Grealish’s performances in 2020, while comparable to some former Premier League greats, has a swagger and unique style almost impossible to replicate – he’s tempted Villa fans in daring to believe that this season could reach unexpected heights.
As 2020 drew to a close, Grealish had won more fouls than any other player in the league. Grealish drew 73 fouls in just 15 games, two of which led to penalty kicks. While Villa have experienced varied success from the penalty spot this term, goals from open play haven’t been in short measure as Grealish has seemingly controlled games from a wider role.
Grealish has made 122 touches in the attacking penalty area – a Premier League high that demonstrates his attacking influence in Smith’s side. Grealish’s expected assists of 4.5 is only bettered by Kevin De Bruyne, while Villa’s captain has made the most shot-creating actions in the league. 61 of his 84 shot-creating actions have actually led to an effort on goal – a high proportion when measured against his top-flight counterparts.
His 55 key passes is also a Premier League high and a big improvement from the numbers Grealish was recording towards the end of 2019. Having dribbled past over 45 different Premier League players, Grealish has moved with the ball at his feet over 3,600 yards. Last season, Grealish set a new Premier League record of total progressive distance travelled with the ball after covering 9,108 yards in 38 games.
The coming years will be Jack Grealish’s to realise his ambitions with his club he grew up supporting – a cornerstone of English football making its way back to the heights from which it once fell with a local lad leading a new, exciting era.
Jack Grealish’s imperious start to the 2020-21 campaign
On the same day that Grealish committed his future to the club he grew up supporting, by putting pen to paper on a new long-term deal with Villa, he lined up at the Pirelli Stadium against Burton Albion as Smith’s side navigated their route back to Wembley in the Carabao Cup.
Only several years ago had Grealish scored against Burton in the Championship – fast forward a couple of seasons and the proof is in the pudding. Despite the many unjust question marks over his head as he took Villa back up to the top flight, against the Brewers, Jack was levels above any other player on the pitch.
With a swagger we’ve all come accustomed to drooling over, Grealish netted his first of the season when he masterfully controlled a volley into the back of the net – standard stuff from Villa’s No.10, but his influence from a wider starting birth continued to support Smith’s tactical switch from last season.
League proceedings would kick off later than usual, as COVID-19 continued to disrupt the Premier League calendar. After Villa kicked off the Premier League’s Project Restart against Chris Wilder’s Blades, Villa would too open their 2020-21 campaign against Sheffield United.
A solid 1-0 victory over a blunted Blades side would soon be followed up with a 3-0 thrashing of newly-promoted Fulham, where Grealish netted his first goal of the season – but what followed next will go down as a Premier League archive for as long as English football will remember.
“Grealish celebrates in front of an empty Holte End but there’ll be Villa fans leaping up and down all across the land and around the world.”
Inflicting the heaviest of defeats any side had managed on Liverpool since Jurgen Klopp took the reigns on Merseyside – Aston Villa 7-2 Liverpool. In fact, not for 67 years has the English top-flight champions fallen to a seven-goal loss, as orchestrated by Jack Grealish and a team of Villa players eager to run give an extra mile for the shirt.
In the past 50 years, only David Platt has registered 25 goal contributions as a Villa captain in fewer appearances with the armband than Grealish. The captain also became the second Villa player to assist three goals in a single Premier League game, since James Milner against Burnley in February 2010, in Villa’s thrashing of Liverpool.
The following week might not have been as frantic, but almost just as sweet when Ross Barkley continued his fine Villa form to wrap up all the points at the King Power Stadium at the death. Grealish turned chief negotiator to seal Barkley’s loan move to Villa Park in the summer and the two formed quite the partnership as Villa fell short of only Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and PSG to average more goals per game in Europe’s top five leagues, as early-season form peaked against Leicester City.
Barkley would pick up a hamstring problem within the opening minutes of a home clash with Brighton and so his injury would disrupt Villa’s encouraging flow. Leeds and Southampton also took maximum points away from Villa Park as Grealish’s side failed to make use of any sort of home advantage when 2020 gradually drew to an end.
Villa only took nine points from away fixtures the last term before Project Restart kicked off in June, but after winning five of the first six games on the road this term, Villa are making effective use of not only the absence of home fans but also some impressive individual defensive displays.
In Villa’s fourth win at the Emirates in 14 years, Grealish ran the length of the pitch with the ball seemingly hooked to his toe on a string, before shrugging off Hector Bellerin in his stride and supplying Ollie Watkins to score Villa’s third of the night. The major benefit of Grealish occupying full-backs from a wide position is to draw several opposing markers to the ball before he can either use his immense set of skills to wriggle his way free of danger or indeed his technical efficiencies to create yet another goalscoring chance.
There was simply no way that Southgate could pass up on the chance to formally include Grealish in his 29-man squad for November’s games against Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Iceland. Grealish was handed three starts in a row as England were offered a closer look at a player capable of becoming a shining light in the pursuit of EURO 2020 success.
Awayday derby delight against Wolves and then West Bromwich Albion came in-between a 0-0 draw to Burnley. Grealish created eight chances for his teammates at The Hawthorns – a number of chances no player has created more of in a single Premier League away game across the past five seasons.
Ending 2020 with a well-fought point at Stamford Bridge was largely down to the example Grealish leads, before defeat at Old Trafford put a halt to Villa’s five-match unbeaten run over the December period. Grealish did add a ninth assist for the season against Manchester United, as Villa’s skipper made handy use of some space on the left flank despite taking up a traditional number one role from the get-go.
While the form of Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traoré had seemingly ended any doubts that creativity would be lost following Barkley’s injury, Grealish’s contributions from a wider role shouldn’t be ignored even if former Ajax pair El Ghazi and Traoré have hit the peak of their powers.