As we today received the news of Gareth Southgate’s second England squad of the season, the notable absentee as far as Aston Villa is concerned is of course Jack Grealish.
I don’t think I was alone in assuming that once Grealish became a Premier League player, the England call up would follow forthwith, such has been his immense impact at Villa Park in retuning the club to the top flight. So what is the hold up? Has the step up been too much for Jack so far, or are there just better options available to Southgate at this stage?
Firstly is it worth remarking that Grealish may not be 'lighting up' the Premier League as we had hoped, but he is certainly proving integral to the Villa set up and showing flashes of the brilliance that became commonplace over the past 2 seasons in the Championship. The gliding, incisive run and cross at Arsenal, for Wesley to tap home was proof that the ‘Gazza-esque’ dribbling and creativity which has so often defined his game, remains very much in the locker. However, whilst last season it seemed that Jack could pick his moment to slice through a defence, this year these moments are far harder to come by.
There have certainly been more grumbles from the stands towards Grealish this season, reminiscent of the first season in the Championship where he struggled to find a regular place in the side and was generally a shadow of the player we thought we had. The difference this time however, is we know Jack and we have seen the class which he can produce on a consistent basis.
Lets get it right though, he’s been far from poor! He still pulls the strings alongside John McGinn in midfield, but he had undoubtedly taken a slight back seat to the all-energy Scot so far this season, who has seemingly taken the Premier League by surprise with his action man displays. As well as the two lads seem to get on, Jack won't like this. After all Villa is his club and he is the captain and poster boy of the outfit, he has supported since he was a twinkle in his Daddy’s eye! He will want to be the star, not the supporting act. No matter how good that star is.
His stats are still up there, in terms of chances created and ‘most fouled’ (look them up). He is also getting opportunities himself, but is yet to notch in the Premier League, despite 2 goals so far in the EFL Cup. He was shifted slightly upfield in the last outing at home to Burnley, taking what appeared to be a free role from the left hand side. This certainly helped him in terms of getting on the ball in the final third and causing problems for Burnley’s defence. However the memorable moment was his decision to shoot from 18 yards, when a slide ball to Trezeguet would have surely ended in a goal for the Egyptian.
So often the main critique of Grealish has been he is not selfish enough. Jack is a team player and has such awareness to be able to see others in better positions, even when many players of his calibre would take it on themselves.
Maybe he is trying too hard. A few weeks Jack himself spoke about taking more risks as he felt that he was playing within himself. This is a great attitude to have and I applaud him for being able to identify this and make efforts to improve that aspect of his performances. But the wonderful thing about Grealish is that it is ‘effortless’ or at least that is the illusion. The game comes easy to him, he glides through games, almost barely touching the grass, stroking passes and seemingly has all the time and space to do what he wants with the football. Of course to play like that takes dedication hard days of training, but that is the magic of Jack.
Therefore the thought of him forcing his game, snatching at opportunities or having to think too much about whether to pass or shoot, detracts from what our captain is all about.
The best advice for Jack is to look to Raheem Sterling for inspiration. He too had issues with the clinical aspect in his game. Too often he would waste chances, or struggle with his decision making, despite his world class potential being abundantly clear. There is a myth in football that a killer instinct cannot be coached or learned. Sterling is proof that is absolutely can be and if Jack wants to receive proper credit on the Premier League stage, those output stats have to improve significantly.
Grealish has all the ability he needs to call on, but maybe he needs to get back to basics, if there is such a thing in his case. Be natural, play with his instincts and use his languid, carefree style to belie the fact that he is a trojan at Bodymoor Heath, putting every last drop of sweat into being a success at Villa and hopefully that England call will come.