By Tom Robinson.
Jack Grealish’s latest assist — a perfectly weighted through ball for Ollie Watkins — may have been no more than a mere consolation goal in a disappointing 3-1 defeat to West Ham, but took Villa’s talisman up to 10 for the season — the first player to do so since Ashley Young in 2010/11.
Given he’s achieved this feat with 18 games still to play is just one example in an array of stats that highlight how Grealish has taken his game on to the next level this season.
The 25-year-old is among the top performers in the Premier League in almost all creative metrics; 3.6 key passes per game, most successful final third passes in the league, most progressive carries (260), well over 50 chances created and more than 50 take-ons completed, while once again being comfortably the most fouled player in the division for the second year in a row.
In a short space of time he has elevated himself to one of the elite performers not just in England but across the top five leagues in Europe, garnering praise from everyone from former pros like Cesc Fabregas and Ian Wright to current managers such as Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.
This comes as no surprise to the Villa faithful, who are quickly running out of superlatives for their home-grown skipper.
From his first appearance at Villa Park, where he was kicked from pillar to post by Hull City, to the flashes of brilliance in the run to the FA Cup final in 2014/15, it was clear they had a special player on their hands.
Early doubts regarding his professionalism and durability were cast aside in a coming-of-age season in 2017/18, Villa’s second year in the Championship. Following the disappointment of playing just 73 minutes for England U21s during the previous summer, and the added blow of a freak pre-season kidney injury that sidelined him for three months, Grealish returned with a new hunger and year on year has steadily improved.
Grealish contributed three goals and five assists but also orchestrated play from a more central position and demonstrated an improved defensive side to his game as Villa ultimately missed out in the play-off finals that year under Steve Bruce.
The next season, bolstered by being handed the captaincy by new boss Dean Smith, Grealish returned from another injury to inspire Villa to a 10-game winning streak to sneak into the play-offs and gain promotion thanks to a win against Derby at Wembley.
Not only did his numbers improve with six goals and six assists, but Grealish was really taking games by the scruff of the neck, demonstrated perfectly in the famous derby victory away at Birmingham in which he was punched by a rival supporter before netting the winner to kick-start Villa’s promotion push.
Grealish made the step up to the Premier League with ease, immediately showing he belonged at the top table with eight goals and six assists.
The crucial final day strike against West Ham to keep Villa up once again displayed Grealish’s ability to produce Hollywood-esque narrative moments that has further cemented his legendary status in the Holte End.
Though his ability has never been in question, the extent to which Grealish has found a new level this season has perhaps even caught some of his most ardent fans somewhat by surprise.
As well as increasing his output in the final third — with six goals and ten assists at the time of writing — Grealish seems to have added an extra burst of acceleration and an increased physicality to his already stellar game. What’s more, he’s spending less time in his own half and having more touches in the opponent’s box where he can be most effective.
This improvement has certainly been helped by a stronger team around him. Emiliano Martínez and Matty Cash have added quality and security to a defence that was already much improved since Project Restart.
Ollie Watkins’ mobility and link-up play has given Villa a focal point and cutting edge up front, while Ross Barkley and Bertrand Traore are on a similar wavelength to Grealish with their ability to draw attention, carry the ball and give him more space in which to operate.
Aside from the new arrivals, many of last year’s relegation-threatened squad have found their feet and stepped up. Douglas Luiz is now an indispensable anchor in midfield, John McGinn is back to full fitness and the likes of Ezri Konsa and Matt Targett have come on leaps and bounds in defence.
There’s also an argument to be made for the impact of Grealish’s integration into the England squad on his current form. At times last season it almost felt as if the repeated snubs to call up Grealish may have counter-intuitively served as a positive, firing him up to prove Southgate and the doubters wrong.
Now a regular in the squad, his inclusion — a source of great personal pride — has given him added confidence, as well as a chance to play with and learn from the top players in the country.
In a recent interview with the Express & Star, Grealish cited Jordan Henderson’s influence after they had a two-hour conversation while on England duty:
“I remember one night in Belgium I sat with Jordan Henderson for two hours and we chatted about everything,” said Grealish.
“It is nice to speak to these people about how they see the game, how they train at different clubs, different cultures.
“You learn stuff from all these guys and I feel that is one thing which has helped me massively. As soon as you start playing for the national team, you up your own game.”
While it feels like Aston Villa have to some extent moved away from being entirely dependent on Grealish, at the same time he has never been more central to their present and future.
His disappointment at being subbed off late on against Newcastle, breaking a run of 42 games playing every minute since October 2019, was a demonstration of his commitment and desire to represent his boyhood club at every possible opportunity.
Grealish is the embodiment of their hunger and ambition and the club needs to match that if they want to keep hold of their star man.
Villa find themselves in a symbiotic dynamic where they need to attract better players to help persuade Grealish to stay, whilst keeping him at the club simultaneously will be a key draw for any new player thinking of joining.
Manager Smith is all too aware of this conundrum. Speaking to Stadium Astro he said: “If we don’t keep progressing and become a club that’s challenging in Europe, then we probably won’t meet Jack’s ambitions and there will be a time when Jack looks elsewhere.”
Whether Villa can get to a level befitting of their standout player, or at least in a quick enough timescale, remains to be seen but, in the meantime, Grealish’s upward trajectory certainly bodes well for club and country.