Jack Grealish's Progress is Pushing Aston Villa towards Promotion
Friday, 23 February, 2018 - 08:00
Jack Grealish picks up his man of the match award after the Birmingham derby earlier this month. Photograph: Ryan Browne/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock
London - Martin Laurence
Aston Villa’s season has been shaped by injuries, for better and for worse. So, with Jack Grealish and top scorer Albert Adomah ruled out of their trip to Fulham on Saturday, it was no great shock that their superb seven-game winning streak came to an end at Craven Cottage. Fulham have usurped Steve Bruce’s side as the form team in the Championship and, now just four points behind third-place Villa, they are also on the hunt for automatic promotion to the Premier League.
Villa face another side aiming for promotion on Tuesday night, when Preston visit Villa Park. Bruce will be desperate to have Adomah and Grealish back available, although both players have done so well this season due to the absences of others. An injury to André Green – and indeed Grealish – early in the season gave Adomah the chance to take up a new role on the left. It has worked wonders, allowing the Ghana international to score 13 goals in 24 starts.
Grealish, meanwhile, suffered a freak injury in the final game of pre-season against Watford that left him in need of a kidney operation and in hospital for 10 days. Grealish used his time out of the side at the start of the season to push himself in the gym. He has come back stronger and more mature, both on and off the pitch, and is now losing his reputation as a Jack the Lad.
Although he has not enjoyed the same level of success, Grealish is comparable to Jack Wilshere in many ways: he is a midfielder opposition fans – and players – love to hate whose talent has been hampered by injuries and bad behaviour. His previous misdemeanours can partly be dismissed as youthful naivety but Grealish now seems to have learned he has been on the scene for too long to keep making the same mistakes. Having some stability at club level has certainly helped.
Despite breaking into the Villa team five years ago aged 17, Grealish has still only started 45 league games in his career – which doesn’t even equate to a full Championship season. In that time he has played under five managers: Paul Lambert, Tim Sherwood, Rémi Garde, Roberto Di Matteo and Bruce. He has been at Villa since he was six and fans have always known about his capabilities but Bruce was initially reluctant to put too much pressure on the young player. Now, however, the manager has faith in his playmaker and has even made clear his intention to build the side around Grealish’s creative talents.
Bruce was understandably cautious about rushing him back to action after such a unusual injury and Grealish used his time out well, working on his fitness and upper body strength with conditioning coach Oli Stevenson. He is now playing the best football of his career. His return coincided with Villa’s seven-game winning streak in the league – the club’s longest in 28 years – and the team’s performance without him at Craven Cottage shows the progress he has made.
His floppy, slicked-back hair and rolled-down socks have played up to the persona of an overly image-conscious, “modern-day footballer”, but the 22-year-old has returned to the team with an altogether more encouraging attitude. Operating in a slightly deeper role in the middle of the park – albeit with the freedom to drift between the lines and to the left flank – Grealish is doing far more without the ball since his comeback.
While his figures for shots (2.1), key passes (2.4) and dribbles (2.3) per 90 minutes remain impressive, his average of 1.9 tackles per 90 points to an improved work ethic out of possession. They are the numbers of an increasingly well-rounded player. Grealish is now drawing applause from fans for both his dazzling dribbles and his lung-busting runs back towards his own goal to retrieve the ball.
Villa clearly missed his spark on Saturday. They mustered just seven shots at the Fulham goal and only two of them were on target; their figures for possession (37%) and pass accuracy (68%) were the result of a line-up lacking composure and guile in attack, qualities Grealish has in abundance.
His pass accuracy of 85% this season is something of an anomaly among his Villa team-mates, sandwiched in second between the club’s two centre-backs, James Chester (87.6%) and John Terry (83.7%). The closest Villa midfielder to Grealish’s figure – Conor Hourihane – is some way back on 80.7%. Given he is playing in both a system and league that doesn’t really value possession – and in an attacking role that requires riskier passes to break the lines – Grealish’s ability to keep the ball in tight situations is perhaps his greatest strength.
His ability on the ball led to him being earmarked by both England and the Republic of Ireland as a future senior international, with England eventually winning out in a public tussle that began before he had even started a game at club level. He has been been in the media spotlight for far longer than most players of his age, despite spending the last two seasons in the second tier.
Perhaps the relief of playing outside of the Premier League is allowing him to flourish and, pertinently, focus on football. He is still young and may be back in the limelight before long, so the key is how he copes with it next time around. He will still harbour international aspirations, and so he should. Grealish should look to the example of Adam Lallana, an attacking midfielder who came through the ranks at his boyhood club outside of the top flight before becoming a crucial player for England. It’s not to late for Grealish to do the same.
The Guardian Sport