Pick a creative metric in the Premier League. Key passes? Progressive ball carries? Successful final third passes? Completed take-ons? Touches in the penalty area? Big chances created? Assists?
Jack Grealish is a common dominator at the elite scale across all of those, which will not surprise anyone that has witnessed his consistent ability to bend games Aston Villa’s way.
There are other worthy candidates, Ruben Dias for one, but he is my Player of the Season: the one I’ve been most mesmerised by, look forward to watching and never feel a sense of disappointment around when tuning in.
Grealish is operating on a pre-eminent scale, counting Kevin De Bruyne, Harry Kane and Bruno Fernandes for company in some respects, while leading them in others.
Yet the discussion over how sublime a player he is often caveated by pointing out Grealish is Villa’s talisman and the team is constructed around his strengths.
While there can be no denying Dean Smith’s side funnel their attacks through the England international and he has prospered in that responsibility as captain of his boyhood club, it is unfair for his brilliance to be limited through this prism.
For one, it is exceptionally taxing to be the axis of a team at elite level. Villa’s opponents line up for every match with the objective of thwarting Grealish: stop him and you smoke their weaponry.
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Only, as they’ve found, that is a thankless task. The sight of him attracting three or four markers, allowing the creation of space for his team-mates, whom he then expertly picks out, has become regular viewing.
Grealish’s composure in these situations is remarkable: he is able to escape tight situations despite drawing the the attention of multiple opponents, or hurt them by having the vision and execution to supply a killer pass.
Regardless of who Villa take to the pitch against, his directive is to be a game-changer and he constantly is. They may not always pick up three points on account of his brilliance, but he is capable of always getting them very close.
A case in point was the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United on New Year’s Day, when he was a one-man creative supply chain, and despite the risk involved in his progressive game, did not make the wrong decisions in possession.
After that game, a text from a senior figure at a Bundesliga club read: “Do England really know what they have with Grealish? Wow!,” and the answer is perhaps ‘not quite.’
He has everything you’d want from a creative attacker: intelligent off the ball movement, an incredible understanding of space and how to manipulate it for the benefit of himself or a team-mate, he is an exceptional ball carrier – the most successful in the division – and is decisive in the final third.
The next stage of his advancement would be to improve his goal tally, which he has already started to work on.
Grealish is naturally linked to Champions League teams – his talent merits it – but the perceived wisdom is that he wouldn’t sparkle at a big club where he’d be required to do less, but score more.
Grealish has been excellent to watch this season
Why sign him if you’re going to eradicate so much of what makes him a phenom? I don’t think this is concretely the case given Grealish’s footballing IQ, his versatility as well as the super teams smartening up on the need to constantly evolve.
Look, for example, at Manchester City’s shapeshifting from a side whose kryptonite was being vulnerable to transitions and the counter, to becoming ridiculously effective in nullifying that.
Liverpool recruited Thiago, who is the antithesis of the rest of their midfielders, but exactly what they required to progress as a unit – a process that has been undercut by severe injuries.
On a different note, no-one foresaw the scale of transformation Fernandes would spark at Manchester United.
Ultimately, if you want to invest in a player with such crystalline strengths and who unequivocally improves those around him, it’s worth tweaking the approach.
But park the future; presently, Grealish is driving Villa’s ambitions of finishing the season in a European spot and it would be quite romantic to see him star on the continent in their colours.
How he is performing for his club – the sheer consistency and power of it – is supreme.
It shouldn’t be used as an asterisk against his ability or wrongly filed as “school captain” behaviour and individualism.
When Grealish takes to the pitch, he is the difference for his side and a constant stream of discomfort for the opposition. It’s time for that to be appreciated minus the buts.
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