It was widely expected by most that Aston Villa playmaker Jack Grealish would leave the club this summer when the club failed to win promotion to the Premier League, after they were defeated by Fulham in the play-off final. Even manager Steve Bruce described his departure as “inevitable” early in the transfer window, after the player enjoyed a majestic season with Aston Villa.
His most likely destination was Tottenham Hotspur but, after the clubs were unable to agree a fee, Grealish has now confirmed he will be staying with the club, at least until January. In this article, we analyse why he is so vital to Villa, and his journey to becoming the talisman for the club.
From his formative years in football, Grealish showed real promise. After being named as a substitute against Chelsea in 2012 as a 16-year old, he went on to win Aston Villa the 2012-13 NextGen series with the club’s under-19s team, scoring in the semi-final against Sporting Lisbon.
He subsequently spent the 2013-14 season on loan at League One side Notts County, where he registered five goals and seven assists in 38 appearances, Grealish returned to Aston Villa for the 2014-15 season. Although he did not score, Grealish won plaudits for his performances and was instrumental in the club’s run to the FA Cup Final that year, where they lost to Arsenal.
However, it was also during this season that questions about Grealish’s discipline came to the fore. He was warned by then-manager Tim Sherwood in April 2015 after he was caught inhaling nitrous oxide for recreational purposes on a night out. It happened again next season, when new manager Remi Garde made Grealish train with the youth team in November 2015, after he stayed in the North West after a 4-0 defeat to Everton to go clubbing.
As a result of the disciplinary issues, coupled with an atrocious season with Aston Villa, which saw the team finish last place and every appearance Grealish make ending in defeat, his potential began to be questioned.
The 16/17 back in the Championship did not start well for Grealish, which began with an internal disciplinary investigation, and a warning with Tony Xia, after a party he went to got shut down by police in September. In addition, he was banned for three matches in October after a stamp on Wolves’ Connor Coady.
However, since the appointment of manager Steve Bruce, at around the same time Grealish served his suspension, there has been a noticeable maturity about the player. Whether this is down to Bruce’s excellent man-management skills, or Grealish growing up after making mistakes most teenagers and young adults do, or a bit of both, there has been a vast improvement on the pitch.
By the end of the 2016/17 season, Grealish had registered five goals and two assists in the league as Aston Villa finished a disappointing 13th in the league. However, it was during last season that Grealish fulfilled his potential to become the lynchpin of an Aston Villa side that reached the play-off final. He scored three times, the one against Cardiff winning the club’s Goal of the Season, and assisted six in the league to spark talk of a potential World Cup spot in the England squad (although that mainly came from Villa fans). Grealish handled the responsibility well, with no disciplinary issues recorded.
Style of play
Grealish has shifted in style over the years. He has gone from an attacking left-sided midfielder who cut in on his right foot during his early seasons, to a central attacking playmaker who drives forward with the ball and picks up space outside of the box. Under Steve Bruce, he has been given a free role to roam about the middle of the pitch and start attacks with his fantastic dribbling and passing ability. This allows him to lurk outside the box, as he has an eye for the spectacular, as his Goal of the Season award shows.
Indeed, his statistics in these respects have improved year after year. During the 2017/18 season, he had more goals and assists per game, more dribbles attempted and more key passes made. It is testament to his willingness to improve his game, especially in recent seasons and this bodes well for his future development.
Grealish vs Ipswich
On Saturday, Aston Villa travel to Ipswich Town to try and carry on their fantastic start to the season. Ipswich are under a new manager for the first time in several years and they are still learning to get to grips with manager Paul Hurst’s style of play.
In the match against Exeter in midweek, where the club were knocked out of the Carabao Cup, Hurst’s vision was clear. There was a focus on quick, intricate passing with a view to move forward as quickly as possible. Thus, Grealish may have to subdue his attacking position and show his great work-rate in order to close down and press the Ipswich players to stop their game.
In addition, the full-backs, led by Jonas Knudsen got as forward as much as possible to link up with the attack. This gives Grealish a huge opportunity to exploit space and bring in the Aston Villa wingers, like Albert Adomah, who can either cut in or cross to provide chances for striker Jonathan Kodija or Grealish at the edge of the box.
A standout player for Ipswich was Chelsea loanee Trevoh Chalobah, who broke up Exeter’s attacks and started his own to great effect. He will most likely be tasked with stopping Grealish and his playmaking talent and he represents a formidable opponent for Grealish to try and work past. If he can do that, then it could be a prosperous game for Grealish as he sets up Villa’s attacks on the counter.
The long-term future
For the time being, Grealish will remain as a key part of Aston Villa’s side, at least until the January transfer window opens. If Villa make a sustained push for promotion, and find themselves around the top-six or higher after Christmas, I don’t think Grealish would leave out of loyalty to see the club get to the Premier League.
However, if things do not go as well, there is every chance he could get a move away in this window. Tottenham Hotspur emerged as the concrete favourites to sign him and made several bids. They could return in January, especially if their season isn’t going well either, as well as other clubs who will be very keen on getting Grealish in. Although, I think Mauricio Pochettino and his style of play not only suits Grealish but also persuaded him that that was the right move to make, so there is doubt that he would move to another club in the Premier League.
There is also the question of the national set-up. It is clear that Grealish has the potential to make a squad, particularly for friendlies and qualifying matches, whilst Gareth Southgate has already shown he will play youngsters of similar ability to him, such as Dominic Solanke and Tammy Abraham.
Former Villa captain John Terry believed Grealish had the talent and work ethic to become a future England regular, which was high praise indeed. If he sets the Championship alight once more, we could see him in an England shirt before the end of the season.
More likely than not however, he will have to wait until an opportunity in the Premier League arises for him to fully grab Southgate’s attention.
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