Aston Villa are looking more certain now that they will have to settle for a playoff spot with our automatic hopes now relying on both Cardiff and Fulham suffering total meltdowns, plus ourselves needed to win all remaining games. We may have our thoughts on who we may or may not want to play come to the playoffs but one thing is for sure; no one will want to play us. One of the main reasons for that is Jack Grealish.
He has been exceptional this season. The talent has always been there, we’ve seen the close control and the skill ever since he broke into the first team. But it was far from a case that he hit the ground running.
After several high profile instances of Grealish being snapped comatose on a Tenerife pavement and around mates who were inhaling nitrous oxide out of balloons (I refuse to label it ‘hippy crack’), many were quick to write the youngster off as just another case of wasted talent. Everyone seemed to forget that we were talking about a nineteen-year-old kid.
Tim Sherwood seemed to get him on some sort of right track and we began to see exactly what Grealish was capable of. A superb curling effort from the edge of the area in a 3-2 defeat at Leicester was his first senior goal. However, this was also our doomed final season in the Premier League and after Sherwood departed in late October, Grealish would barely feature during Remi Garde’s short reign in charge.
If there were any positives in dropping to Championship level, it was that our boy wonder would probably benefit from developing at a more suitable level for him for a season rather than having expectation thrust upon him in a side struggling to fight off relegation again. As it turned out, our bravado about only staying down for a year was completely misguided.
However, there were noticeable improvements in Grealish’s performances. More game time certainly seemed to improve the consistency of his quality and by the end of the season, the Solihull born youngster had notched himself five goals of exceptional quality in 31 appearances.
Yet there were still doubters even amongst the Villa faithful who were convinced he was simply a show pony. Unquestionably, there were still areas of his game that were lacking. Discipline was one factor, with Grealish having a penchant for picking up a booking. But perhaps most of all, it was evident that there was still a lack of a real work ethic.
The improvements made this season though have been incredible. At twenty-two years old, the lifelong Villa fan finally seems to be maturing into a player that can be relied upon in many different ways. Amazingly, it was November before we even saw Grealish due to a freak kidney injury suffered in pre-season. Whilst there was certainly some expectation upon his return to action, I think he has surprised most people this year with just how much he has improved. If only he’d been fit from August.
Steve Bruce noted before the start of the season that he wanted to build his side around Grealish. Whatever you think of Bruce, that is a huge compliment from any manager to be singled out in such a way. Matt Le Tissier tells a story of when Alan Ball took over at Southampton and dragged him out of a line up of players and makes everyone stand around him and says that Le Tissier is the man that everyone should be looking to get the ball to because simply, he is the best player at the club by far. Le Tissier’s confidence went through the roof and with a free role handed to him as long as he worked hard, he would go on to score 45 goals in 64 games during Ball’s time at the Dell.
That is not intended as a direct comparison between Le Tissier and Grealish, but to highlight how that sort of mercurial player can really respond to certain management methods and I imagine he has benefitted from a similar sort of boost of confidence and responded by working hard for it.
Despite feeling that he prefers playing on the left side of a front three, it appears obvious to everyone else that Grealish is a natural for that number 10 role. Bruce has played him centrally where he has the licence to drop and find space and make things happen. We are seeing more and more of Grealish operating around the halfway line to receive the ball and turning past his marker and starting off an attack.
However, for me, it is Grealish’s work rate which has been a big difference this year. He has added defensive responsibility to his game which has been vital; for all his attacking menace, we cannot afford to carry any passengers on this team. He has been noticeably tracking back runners and has been an extra body behind the ball for the most part instead of standing watching the play go by.
On several occasions, he has also absolutely dictated the game. The 2-0 victory over Birmingham City, in particular, is an excellent example of this. And whilst the opposition may be lacking the quality you may argue, there is no denying that Grealish proved he has the stomach for the big occasions.
So, there is now an obvious question to be asked; is Jack ready to step up a level? Well, first of all, hopefully, that will be with Aston Villa next season. There are calls for him to be included in the England squad for the World Cup which for me is a little fanciful. But I do think Grealish is certainly much better equipped now for Premier League football than he was the last time we were there and could have a real impact. The prospect of pulling on an England shirt is certainly not a million miles away and is definitely an achievable target. But that won’t happen as long as he’s a Championship player.
He is difficult to play against. He was the third most fouled player in the division last season and we’ve seen that continue this year with many teams have to kick him to stop him. He has an ability to glide past players and is quick enough to draw fouls in dangerous positions which is extremely handy with people such as Robert Snodgrass and Conor Hourihane in the side who can whip in pinpoint accurate deliveries.
Perhaps his goal ratio is lacking slightly but when he does score they are goals of real quality. Obviously, that volley against Cardiff recently is the pick of the bunch and demonstrated the technique he possesses. But he doesn’t score tap-ins. The previous week saw another superb effort against Norwich and as alluded to earlier last seasons goals were all quality (to jog your memory, walking the ball in the net against Rotherham, a cushioned volley against Bristol City and superb long-range efforts against Wigan, Fulham and Brighton). These efforts are no flukes.
Grealish has matured on and off the pitch. He himself has acknowledged that there were perhaps people in his circle of friends that were leeching a little and only interested in what they could get out of his success. Gone are the pictures and stories that were finding their way into the papers.
Similarly, the weakness to allow his petulance to rear its head also seems to have been curbed. It was understandable to an extent, with seasoned pro’s only aim to kick lumps out of him, especially when the referees are doing little to protect him. To be honest, I’d find it difficult not to react and show frustration.
But this season there has been less of the flare-ups and more of just getting back up and getting on with it. He seems to now understand he is a marked man and it will be part of his job unfortunately to take the knocks.
So, could Grealish make the step up? Out of current squad, I think he is definitely one of the ones most capable of making the transition. The talent is undeniable and that now seems to have married with an impressive work ethic. These two years in the Championship may have been awful for Villa as a club, but they may well have just been the making of Jack Grealish.