Aston Villa’s talismanic captain Jack Grealish has returned to full fitness, and with the business end of the Premier League campaign insight, Super Jack is fully intent on making up for lost time following a forced withdrawal from Gareth Southgate’s England squad.
With bare calves flashing, a slicked back undercut and number ten hanging off his back, Grealish’s unique style has become commonplace at Villa Park, and now top-flight onlookers have come accustomed to lauding his performances in the past 18 months.
Derisory offers have are few and far between in modern football, with billions spread across European transfer windows, but while Daniel Levy was keen to hold out for a £3million deal to secure Grealish in 2018, his futile efforts simply become Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens’ first statement of intent as Villa owners.
That particular approach was blocked when Sawiris and Edens swooped in to save Villa from financial ruin as Grealish became the invaluable asset that could not be moved. His is legacy that will no doubt cement a unique type of player exclusive to Villa Park and while his influence on this current Aston Villa team is obvious – by virtue of his abundance of quality – Villa must deal with that same heavy hand and continue to build around their irreplaceable No.10.
Having picked up a reported injury to his shin – the same knock he’d sustained through Villa’s final Championship campaign – against Brighton in early February, only a 1-0 win over Leeds United had helped quell the misery of Villa with Jack in the past eight weeks.
In the first half of the Premier League season, many outsiders viewed Dean Smith’s Villa as this league’s surprise package, with an identity built on key partnerships, an insatiable work-rate and individual quality, much of which stemmed from the irresistible Grealish.
Though, after winning just four of their last 15 league games, Villa have suffered to match the same levels of performances exhibited earlier in the campaign. Back-to-back 3-0 wins over West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace in between Christmas epitomised the ruthless streak Smith’s side had found, but more recently, failures to beat Sheffield United, Newcastle United and even a poor Wolves side at Villa Park has left the club’s top-half finish in the balance.
Now, with Grealish set to return after missing the past six league outings, Villa will be welcoming back not only one of the more creative players in the Premier League, but on his day, one of the best on the continent. We all know what Grealish can do with ten games left and a captain’s armband strapped to his bicep – this top-flight campaign is far from over and in a season unlike any other before it, there’s no reason why Smith won’t be aiming for a scintillating ending to his second Premier League campaign in management.
Comparisons to Premier League greats and EURO 2020 hopes
It might not have come as a surprise to Villa fans that their poster boy has drawn comparisons to Eden Hazard or Joe Cole of yesteryear – but as top-flight icons continue to scramble for superlatives to label England’s new Gazza-like prodigy, Robert Pires might’ve given the highest praise of them all.
“Jack is a great footballer with a good technique – and I love watching him play because he reminds me of Dennis Bergkamp,” former Villa man and Arsenal invincible, Pires said.
“I like to see him playing in the same position as Dennis, as a No.10. He has great vision, he isn’t a selfish player because he always wants to do what is best for the team, and I think he has a great future.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on Jack because he is still a young player learning the game and Dennis was an incredible talent and a champion. But Grealish is a very complete player and I think the key for him is to keep playing like he enjoys his football.”
Boy wonder and club legend in the making, the past year has been a struggle for us all but watching Grealish live the dream made us all fall back in love with football, watching him every weekend is the escape many of us have craved. He’s the local lad leading Villa’s assault on English football’s elite.
From his tender years, Grealish showcased his abilities and so big things were expected of him. This was further extenuated when the club gave up its Premier League ever-present mantle and the burden of expectation was thrust upon his young shoulders.
The quest for promotion was very much a personal battle for Jack and he stepped up to the challenge square on, acting as the driving force for promotion under Steve Bruce before Dean Smith – occupying a creative role in the hole behind Lewis Grabban, then Tammy Abraham.
Season in, season out, Grealish’s impact at Villa Park has been unmatched, arguably becoming the single most important player to any football club over the past two years. Wearing the captain’s armband and performing to a level that exceeds his reputation across the country, the debate if he’s fit to wear the Three Lions shirt is now indisputable.
In Southgate’s September internationals squad selection, the national team boss had to contend with injuries to key midfielders Jordan Henderson, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dele Alli, forcing the selection of an inexperienced group. Grealish’s first cap for England was in sight.
“I’m very conscious I’ve got to get the balance right because ultimately my responsibility is to produce a winning England team,” Southgate admitted back in 2018.
“I never pick on reputation – form has to come into it. You have to look at the opposition and the type of game you’re expecting and select the players best suited to that.”
Though after performing at the peak of his powers through the 18 months leading up to the start of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign, Grealish’s initial absence left fans scratching their heads across the country, not just the ‘biased’ few in Birmingham.
Grealish was no doubt just as surprised as every Villa fan in Erdington, Perry Barr and Sutton Coldfield when he didn’t receive that long-awaited phone call. Villa’s captain has come on leaps and bounds over the past three years, and along the way, many have tipped him for the top after witnessing his talent first hand.
Joe Cole spent two years at Villa Park towards the end of his career and realised Grealish’s potential immediately.
“I think he’s the type that can pull on any shirt and it wouldn’t be too heavy for him,” said Cole.
“I include the England shirt with that. His England career has been a long time coming for various reasons but no shirt would be too heavy for Jack. He’d be able to wear it.”
Cole was another stylish midfielder prone to the curse of not knowing how to use his flair and guile in an England shirt. The uniquely talented tens so often produced on the continent have rarely blossomed since the likes of Paul Gascoigne, though as we await to see what the shirt holds for Grealish, his England career was about to take off.
Following the withdrawal of Marcus Rashford from Gareth Southgate’s squad in September, Grealish was drafted in to cover an extensive injury list, in particular from the left-wing – the position where Grealish has discovered his best form in a Villa shirt.
Since then, eye-catching performances against Belgium and Iceland have propelled Grealish into Southgate’s starting thoughts. Though after missing England’s most recent internationals, Grealish will have to rediscover the form he demonstrated towards the start of the Premier League campaign in a Villa shirt to guarantee not only his place on the plane but also a starting place in what looks a highly competitive England squad.
The levels Jack Grealish set at the start of the Premier League campaign
At the start of Grealish’s third full Premier League season, he helped Villa make a record-breaking start, while also setting a standard of performance that had earmarked Villa’s talisman as a contender for Player of Year.
Smith’s assistant, John Terry, who enjoyed the luxury of playing alongside and now coaching Villa’s star man, also drew comparisons to some of the division’s best from over the years.
“I think he’s similar to Joe Cole and Eden Hazard,” Terry explained.
“I just think the natural ability he’s got and that Joe Cole had, a God-given talent that not many people are blessed with but he’s certainly got.
“The way he glides past people. He’s quick, but not many people know it – I don’t think he knows how quick he is. He’s a tremendous talent, he gets a lot of fouls in the Championship and now in the Premier League.
“People don’t know how to stop him!”
In the past five seasons, there is only one other player who averages more than 0.2 expected goals and expected assists, four take-ons and three fouls won per 90 minutes: Hazard in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Grealish’s performances in 2020, while comparable to some former Premier League greats, has a swagger and unique style almost impossible to replicate – he had tempted Villa fans into daring to believe that this season could have reached unexpected heights altogether.
As 2020 drew to a close, Grealish had won more fouls than any other player in the league. Grealish drew 73 fouls in just 15 games, two of which led to penalty kicks. While Villa have experienced varied success from the penalty spot this term, goals from open play haven’t been in short measure as Grealish has seemingly controlled games from a wider role.
Grealish has made 122 touches in the attacking penalty area – a Premier League high that demonstrates his attacking influence in Smith’s side. Grealish’s expected assists of 4.5 is only bettered by Kevin De Bruyne, while Villa’s captain has made the most shot-creating actions in the league. 61 of his 84 shot-creating actions have actually led to an effort on goal – a high proportion when measured against his top-flight counterparts.
His 55 key passes is also a Premier League high and a big improvement from the numbers Grealish was recording towards the end of 2019. Having dribbled past over 45 different Premier League players, Grealish has moved with the ball at his feet over 3,600 yards. Last season, Grealish set a new Premier League record of total progressive distance travelled with the ball after covering 9,108 yards in 38 games.
The coming years will be Jack Grealish’s to realise his ambitions with his club he grew up supporting – a cornerstone of English football making its way back to the heights from which it once fell with a local lad leading a new, exciting era.