Stick or Twist on Jack Grealish?

Eighty-three minutes played at the London Stadium and Dean Smith nervously rubs his face. Bournemouth are heading to a victory at Goodison Park and Watford, dead and buried at 40 minutes at The Emirates, are staging a comeback of biblical proportions against the Gunners thanks to goals from Troy Deeney and Danny Welbeck. Villa have played well, and not scored- a familiar story this season for the Aston faithful. So too is the story of not showing up at all. They went missing in numerous crunch games around Christmas, not least the 3-1 home pumping by a Danny Ings-led Southampton who themselves were on the verge of the relegation zone at the time. That is why Villa are in this position now, with 7 minutes remaining of their return season to the Premier League. And that is why Villa need a goal. Not mathematically, but to calm the jitters of the claret half of the Second City who are all too used to the pain of last-minute, last gasp failure by their beloved team.

Their boy wonder, now a 24-year-old Captain and talisman to the team, has the ball in the box and is being closed down rapidly onto his weaker side. But fortune favours him: a limp-wristed Fabianski, usually so reliable for the Hammers, watches as the well-struck, but saveable strike cannons off his palms and falls into the net. Villa took the lead, and although they were comically pegged back 100 seconds later, it was enough to rewrite the same old story that Aston Villa fans are so used to experiencing. They are staying up.

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I have watched a lot of Jack Grealish this season. For every lucky moment, like the one he had against West Ham, there are five other moments of mercurial playmaking that amount to nothing. Indeed, he has created more chances (91) than any other player in the league this season bar Kevin De Bruyne. In a better team, one would think he’d have far more assists to his name. Can you take the man out of Aston?

Jack Grealish knows his game and has become embedded into a system that, although it is capable of surviving without him, is built around him in both the transition and the attacking dynamics. It is characterised by a low-tempo draw-out system where Grealish will receive the ball in the middle third, and call on a simple set of play designs to maximise the advantage for Villa, usually characterised by movement through the left half-space and left wing.

These play designs fit straightforwardly into three categories: he can quickly identify short passes to encourage pressure onto teammates receiving the ball while keeping himself available for the return; he can bring himself close to his opponent immediately prior to receiving the ball and use his deft feints to draw a foul; or he can travel with the ball, typically at a pedestrian pace, encouraging midfield pressers to take their chance and try to catch him in possession, often resulting in a failed attempt and again either a short pass is completed or a foul is drawn.

That is not to say he does not have other weapons in his arsenal- his blistering run against the Gunners, started because of his own interception, and sublime through ball to Keinan Davis, demonstrated his ability to move at pace when the opportunity presents itself. Not often enough does he show a fierce curling shot which he can pull out from under his feet, as he did in the impressive draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

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Fundamentally, Villa’s tempo is dictated by Grealish – line breaking runs into space are rarely made, not because the likes of El Ghazi and Trezeguet lack the pace (the latter being one of the fastest players off the ball in the Premier League), but because the system Dean Smith has implemented attempts to capitalise on their captain’s ability to get opposition midfielders to overcommit, creating easier chances for the forwards who, bluntly, are in the lowest range of technical and clinical ability of regular Premier League starters. His progressive distance carries and progressive passes are both well ahead of anyone in his age group, eclipsing Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz and Frenkie De Jong this season (credit: @jonollington on Twitter).

With some certainty, we can judge Grealish’s impact to not only be the key reason that Villa stayed up but also be of the quality capable of fighting for a starting place at any of the Top 6 (excluding Liverpool- more on that later.)

So, should he stay or should he go? Do you leave your team, when they are in the Premier League and you are their captain & poster-boy? And if he should go, should he go now, with three years left on his deal? And if he should go now, where to? There is a fine balance of pros and cons for Jack, in all scenarios.

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Jack Grealish should stay if he is more concerned about being a hometown hero than he is about personal prestige. That much is given. If Jack spends his career at the Villa, keeping them in the Premier League for the next ten years, then he will be remembered as an iconic figure at the club, even if his personal list of honours sits far below the potential of his talent.

Like Matt Le Tissier at Southampton, he will be a hero and will be cherished in the hearts of a generation of Aston Villa supporters. And maybe, just maybe, they could achieve more. As Leicester, Wolves and Sheffield United have demonstrated, shrewd investment and a clear footballing identity can lead to a stunning rise up the League. Of course, for those three examples, there is a very long list of other teams who themselves had a clear, exciting identity and fell to the wayside, Norwich being the most recent example. But Villa might fancy themselves, with two of the richest owners in the League, to build something special around their talisman whose combination of talent and affinity with the club is perhaps irreplaceable.

They desperately need to improve their front three (and probably identify new and better squad players in these positions), in order that Jack can move back to the left of a middle three. They require an upgrade in central midfield to support the ever-improving Douglas Luiz and to give competition to the statistical oddity that is John McGinn. They could do with improvement across the back line; Bjorn Engels looked particularly out of place on numerous occasions this season and Neil Taylor no real option at all at back-up left back, who looked increasingly out of his depth in the Premier League.

If Jack is committed to seeing out his contract at the very least, then these signings can be made across the next three years. Villa are a historically massive club, and if they can achieve a season of mid-table comfort next year, they may find that more of the prominent prospects in Europe’s Top 5 leagues are attracted to a romantic rebuild of one of British football’s great institutions. With both a manager and a captain who are fans of the club, quality players spurred on by passion could propel Villa to the lofty heights that are now not so unrealistic for any club that can spend the hyper-funds of the Premier League wisely.

But in truth, this idealism is just that. Idealism. Villa are more likely than not in for another season of struggle. With the pandemic likely to disrupt at least some of next season, clubs will not be splashing out on large signing unless they are very, very well insulated from the global economic downturn that is unfolding and will continue to unfold until the pandemic is over. Villa will need to be sensible, recruiting in positions of dire need for as little outlay as possible, and this is unlikely to result in them increasing their points return by at least 15 to give them that treasured mid-table security.

Unless, of course, they sell Jack Grealish.

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For an uncapped English prospect who is a proven Premier League talent and an obvious skill set that focuses almost exclusively on chance creation, three seasons left on his deal, and owners with no financial need to sell, Villa will expect at least £50 million with add-ons for England caps, Champions League appearances, and silverware. Indeed, amid interest from Manchester United, the ownership have argued that Grealish could command a fee which matches that paid for Harry Maguire last summer; but they would be unwise to price Jack out of the deal if he wants to leave. He has been quoted more than once saying that his dream at Villa is not his only dream. There is one more: donning the white shirt of the Three Lions.

Jack’s stock is the highest it has ever been, and the chances of maintaining that height are slimmer in a struggling Villa side than they are at any club in the Top 6 (indeed, the top 10) where he can start regularly. No doubt, there is a risk: if he does not perform, and perform quickly, relegation to the bench will see his stock fall through the floor. At Villa, he competes with Anwar El Ghazi, Conor Hourihane and John McGinn. At Spurs, a realistic destination, he would be challenging established England international Dele Alli, Erik Lamela and Gio Lo Celso. Players like Grealish who are tasked with chance creation often look to be playing very poorly if their ideas go without end product. With capable competition, he may find that he falls out of favour much more quickly without the infallibility that comes with his Aston Villa shirt. Equally, if he can get his first cap while still at Villa, he may go on to make many more irrespective of Villa’s league standing.

If he leaves, he needs to move to a club that is the right fit for his skill set, and this should be the fundamental factor when making his decision. At this stage, Liverpool should be discounted. Getting Jack Grealish to learn heavy metal gegenpressing under Klopp would be like asking Billie Eilish to take on the role of lead singer in the band Megadeth. Jack, as established, thrives in the low tempo manipulation of opposing player decision-making and attacking vacated space. Liverpool batter open a doorway to the space they seek to exploit. They narrow the decision-making window for their opponents through a carefully constructed, but rapid, angled-run blitz scheme in transition and then punish defenders through fast progression and wide overloads.

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At Liverpool, Jack would have to learn to pass far, pass often, and counter-press. It is not inconceivable he could pick up these traits and become strong in them. But the primary issue lies in his innate desire to draw individual pressure, which is not in Liverpool’s Kloppian DNA. And no wonder he loves to take on opponents: his duels win/loss ratio is 1.59. Wijnaldum is 0.89, Henderson is 1.29. Keita supersedes Grealish at a remarkable 1.64. But fundamentally, Liverpool do not use their midfield to take on opponents directly, and as such, these three players post far lower levels of attempted duels per game than the magnetic Grealish, who loves to draw fouls. To make the most of Grealish’s talents, Klopp needs to consider playing him as a left inside forward as he has done for the majority of this season with Villa. This would mean dropping Sadio Mane, who is perhaps the best player in the Premier League.

Low tempo, drawing out opponents, taking advantage of vacated space. It does not sound much like Manchester United either, who have allegedly cooled their interest in the midfielder, now that a cut-price deal seems out of the question following Villa’s survival. Ole is slowly but surely building a high block, high tempo passing game that is now a duel threat both inside and wide with Bruno Fernandes providing metronomic balance to the Red Devils progressions in the final third. On the positive side, Jack Grealish’s age profile fits Solskjaer’s outlook, with 96% of United’s league goals this season scored by players under the age of 27. And in terms of transfer policy, Grealish seems to fit, too, with last summer’s signings of Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James underlining Solskjaer and United’s preference for young, hungry, British talent. But could Jack even displace Pogba or Fernandes? Both are in fantastic form, and neither need to perform well every week to be likely starters at Old Trafford. Moreover, they fit the Manchester United intangible model of having a world-class profile off the field. Would Grealish shirts sell in Asia? He might, but it is uncertain.

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What of Chelsea, or City, now both confirmed as Champions League participants? Who knows what Lampard-ball will look like with the Football Manager golden boys that are Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech added to the side (possibly Havertz too). Perhaps, if he could find his way in the XI of a team that boasts a very deep midfield squad, Jack could mould the new tactical shape that Chelsea deploy, likely to be built on a fast transition up to any three of Pulisic, Werner, Abraham and Ziyech, with Kante at the base to allow creativity between a presumed midfield pairing. It could work. But Chelsea simply do not need Jack Grealish. Jorginho, Mount, Kovacic, Barkley, Gilmour, Ziyech (if played deeper) and possibly Havertz provide a plethora of options to Lampard to fulfil his plans. If the rumoured Havertz deal falls through, they could consider Grealish, but that seems little prospect of that at this stage.

As for Manchester City, they have their own golden boy. With the departure of David Silva ordinarily opening the top 6 door for Jack Grealish, surely now is the time for the boots of KDBs partner to be filled by Phil Foden. Jack would be unwise to consider taking him on for that starting role, with Foden going for his first England call up himself.

This leaves two similar, viable options: the North London clubs. A half-way house for next season; both have the profile of Champions League clubs, neither of which will be playing in it next year. There is at least a taste of European football at both, however, following Arsenal’s FA Cup win.

At Arsenal, Arteta needs defenders more than he needs midfielders, but a more reliable playmaker than the maligned Mesut Ozil seems a must at the Emirates. If Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi – the latter of which himself faces massive questions about his future at the club – are left to focus on build-up, Grealish could compete with Ozil, Willock or Ceballos as a lone advanced playmaker tasked with driving the ball towards the intriguing forward line. A link-up man who offers both mercurial talent and consistency has not been seen at Arsenal since Santi Cazorla. As Arteta reshapes his defence, the single midfield signing of Jack Grealish could be enough to unlock the potential of the front seven, if he is embedded appropriately into a low tempo possession game.

However, domestic expectations will be high next season. On paper, there are dreadful gaps in squad depth, and defensive reinforcements should be higher on Arteta’s shopping list than another attacking option.  Arsenal’s bizarrely uneven squad quality make their aspirations unlikely, even with the highly-regarded Saliba joining the ranks next season.

Much the same is needed at Spurs. Tottenham need another Eriksen-style playmaker to get the best out of Harry Kane and provide more diverse tactical options to maximise the output of Son, Alli, Moura and Bergwijn. Spurs represent the more uncertain move because of their confounding manager Jose Mourinho. Prone to public criticism of his players, Jack would be in the firing line immediately in the same way Ndombele has been this season if he does not increase his defensive output. Mourinho expects everything of his midfielders. Jack would need to not only hit the ground running, he would need to try and maintain his attacking output while expecting to contribute to a mid-to-low block on a consistent basis. Nevertheless, Spurs in progression would fit Grealish well. They too manipulate space to provide openings for Kane and for Son, with Moura and Bergwijn offering potential to exploit the wings. The idea of Jack Grealish having the space he creates utilised successfully (where it is often squandered at Villa) is tantalising.

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Moreover, when Spurs have been in poor form, the exact type of player they have been missing this season is someone like Grealish, who at the very least can fashion chances purely by drawing fouls, and through this, he can become appreciated by their fans. As an additional consideration, the longevity of Mourinho at Spurs is unlikely to go beyond the end of 2022. Spurs, generally, are very well run, and their next manager is probably more important a factor to Grealish than their current one. If Jack is already part of the Spurs squad when a new manager arrives, it will soon be evident to them how much of an asset he is in progression. He will need to keep Dele Alli on the bench to maintain his profile, but equally, he could afford to be involved in healthy competition if the side are succeeding. However, the biggest sticking point with this transfer may well be Daniel Levy, who will, probably, be unwilling to meet any valuation of Grealish placed on him by his current owners.

On an objective basis, Tottenham are more favourable for Grealish than Arsenal purely because Spurs are closer to being a Top 4 side than Arsenal are.

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While Arteta may get the best out of Grealish individually, and the player is probably a closer stylistic fit to Arteta than Mourinho, there is more scope for immediate success playing in white rather than red. Realistically, his options at Champions League placed clubs are limited simply because the interest or starting spot does not appear to be there, even though he has been touted as Manchester United’s marquee man this summer. Between Arsenal and Spurs, Ultimately, Grealish may have to take a punt, with no obvious front runner for his signature. But the future is bright for almost any team with Grealish in it- their creative output is highly likely to increase with the Aston man donning their shirt, having hung up the claret and blue.


Image Credit: Kolforn (Wikimedia) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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