It’s difficult to tell whether the international break came at a good or bad time for Aston Villa. The infuriating denial of a last-minute goal against Crystal Palace which saw Jack Grealish booked for a dive certainly created a despondent mood. For some, getting back out onto the pitch as soon as possible may have been the best fix, but I can’t help but think that a couple of weeks to get it out of the system may not be a bad thing.
Tyrone Ming’s inclusion into the England squad, along with Tom Heaton, is pleasing for everyone connected with the club. Having a Villa presence in the England set-up again gives an added interest to the current Euro qualifiers. Mings’ call up, in particular, was met with genuine pride from Villa supporters who have taken to the £20 million signing in an unprecedented manner. In fact, the only player who would generate even more passion amongst supporters by receiving a call up would be Grealish.
Grealish is clearly in England manager Gareth Southgate’s thinking. Last season, Southgate commented that whilst Grealish was on the radar, it would be difficult for the Villa captain to break through as a Championship player. So now, as a Premier League starter, how far off is Grealish from winning a first international cap?
From the inside looking out, it feels like many supporters of other clubs do not rate Grealish all that highly. Despite clocking up an inordinate amount of fouls against him (336 in those three years of Championship football), a completely unfair reputation as a diver has dogged his career up until this point. That will now only be enhanced by Kevin Friend’s ludicrous decision to brandish a yellow card for that offence, which incidentally was Grealish’s only ever caution for ‘simulation’.
The other criticism thrown at Grealish is that he doesn’t score enough or get enough assists. And this is where we separate the people who actually watch his game and those who simply look at stats.
Watching Grealish closely
No, Grealish isn’t an assists monster or a goal machine. There is a very simple reason for that – he doesn’t play in an as advanced role as people seem to think he does. But would doing so help him force his way into the England setup and also potentially benefit Villa?
First of all, I think assists statistics are massively flawed and don’t really give a true representation of a supporting players ability. For example, a player creating chances for someone like Ronaldo or Lionel Messi is likely to have more assists due to the striker’s ability to finish. That same player could be creating the same quality of chances for someone like Nicklas Bendtner and be lucky to grab 5 assists a season. It’s a very basic example but illustrates the point.
Irrespective of that, despite wearing a number 10 shirt, Grealish actually plays deeper than the advanced playmaker role historically typified by wearing that number. At his best, he will pick up a loose ball in his own half and look to break, gliding past players and creating panic before laying the ball off out wide. Similarly, when looking to break down teams, he will often drop deep which often draws out opponents due to his ability to pick a pass. His aptitude to create space is what makes him so valuable to Villa.
The perception of Grealish not producing an end product often enough is the biggest problem he faces though. With the likes of James Maddison and Mason Mount perceived to be his direct competition to break into the England squad, does Grealish need to adapt his game to create more headlines and catch the eye?
It’s a difficult one. Maddison, in particular, has gone from strength to strength since making the step up to Premier League football and fully deserves his place in the England set up. Mount also has enjoyed a good start to the season. To be fair to Grealish, he has been solid without being spectacular so far. But he has still created nine chances from open play so far this season – the same amount as Declan Rice, Ross Barkley and Jordan Henderson combined.
It’s possible that Grealish’s form didn’t quite warrant a call up on this occasion. But if the likes of Jesse Lingard and Ross Barkley are getting call ups without doing very much to deserve them, then Grealish surely is only a few steps away from really knocking on the door?
There is talk of Villa perhaps looking to try and adapt the midfield and utilising two defensive midfielders or dropping John McGinn back further and pushing Grealish on a bit more. It would be interesting to see and I have to admit, despite being fully aware of what Grealish is capable of even in a deeper position, the thought of him playing in a more advanced role is really exciting.
Ironically, Grealish’s best moment on the ball so far in the league this season was probably that run into the box at Selhurst Park. The panic amongst the Palace rearguard was almost tangible as they reacted desperately to such direct play. Despite being fouled (and yes, he was fouled) he still was able to lay off a perfectly weighted pass for Henri Lansbury to strike the first time.
That is something I can’t deny that I’d love to see more of from Grealish. Those direct runs into the opponent’s area. We’ve seen the attention he attracts even when on the ball deeper down the pitch. That is only going to be magnified the closer he plays to the opposition’s box.
The good thing for Grealish is that Mings’ call up has proven that Southgate will pick players who are impressing, whichever club they are at, so he can certainly achieve his ambitions at Villa. The other thing going for him is that Southgate is intelligent enough to realise that it isn’t all about assists and goals and that Grealish plays such an important role for Villa. It’s just whether the England boss sees a need for that type of role fitting into his current system.
Some of the greatest players of the modern era have played similar roles to Grealish. Luka Modric. Andrea Pirlo. Andreas Iniesta. They barely scored more than three or four goals a season. And whilst Iniesta’s assist rate was higher than the others, mostly helped by playing with Lionel Messi, both Modric and Pirlo didn’t clock up many at all. All of them, however, were exceptional technically and their game was focused on controlling the tempo of a game and enabling others to create chances; the pre-assist if you like.
I’m certainly not stating that Grealish is operating even near the levels of this particular trio. But he does possess the characteristics to fulfil the role to a high standard; technically, Grealish is clearly gifted. Those volleyed goals against Cardiff and Derby demonstrated that beyond doubt.
His balance and ball control is superb and he is a very graceful player to watch. And like the others mentioned, his game doesn’t rely on pace. Passing, especially over distance, is key, however, and with Dean Smith’s style of play looking to reduce long balls, it’s one area of his game that may not blossom as much. Of course, a more advanced role would negate the need for that anyway.
Grealish doesn’t necessarily need to change his game though, for England or otherwise. If he moves further forward, then great, and I think that will be incredibly exciting to watch. I think the most important thing is that, right now, there isn’t anyone who plays in the manner which Jack Grealish does. His style and ability are unique and he presents an option that others can’t provide. That alone brings him into the reckoning.
But I do think that in either his current role or in a more advanced one, he just needs a few more games to find himself at Premier League level. We’re only four games in and there is plenty of time.
I don’t think the level of competition currently on show for England is beyond Grealish to overhaul. And with some consistent displays, a call up before the end of this season, and hopefully a place in the Euro 2020 squad, is certainly achievable.