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xV: Aston Villa need to avoid a damaging transfer saga with Jack Grealish

There are clear parallels between Wilfried Zaha and Villa’s captain — the Claret and Blues need to avoid the type of saga Crystal Palace find themselves enveloped in.

Crystal Palace v Aston Villa - Premier League
Jack Grealish of Aston Villa and Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace walk in tunel ahead of the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Aston Villa at Selhurst Park on August 31, 2019 in London, United Kingdom.
Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a stats-based column about Aston Villa. The Claret and Blues are safe! A huge transfer window awaits them, and all eyes are on one player: Jack Grealish.

Aston Villa need to make some signings, sure. They’ll have cash available to do it, too. But the most important business they will or won’t do this summer revolves around the potential sale of Jack Grealish.

To be clear: I do not want the club to sell Jack. The club do not need to sell him. They’re on stable financial footing, and his performances over the course of the season were certainly the most influential to keep them in the Premier League. He’s a boyhood Villa fan, our club captain, beloved by the fans. There’s no reason that any Villa supporter should want to sell him.

But I saw this tweet the other day from HLTCO — a Crystal Palace account that’s one of my favorite follows on Twitter. It’s about Wilfried Zaha, of course, but my mind went straight to Grealish.

That’s because of the strong parallels between Zaha’s transfer saga, and the one Villa could be embarking on with Grealish. They’re both highly influential players and local lads who feel they deserve the opportunity to play in Europe, and they’re both functionally more valuable to their current club than they could be to anyone else. Hell, the similarity tracks right down to the demanded transfer fee for each player — last summer, Palace wanted £80 million for Zaha; this summer, Villa reportedly want £80 million for Grealish.

Villa are not in a position where they need to sell if their valuation isn’t matched, there’s no doubting that. Grealish has three years left on his contract, is at his boyhood club, and it would take a lot for the Claret and Blues to replace his contribution (and be the biggest test yet of the new leadership’s ability to buy in the market). Yet the same list of things could’ve been said a year ago about Zaha, who had an underwhelming 2019/20 campaign after his transfer request didn’t result in a move away from Selhurst Park. It offers a cautionary tale to Villa, who must at least take a look to South London to understand the downside of keeping Grealish if the player has his heart set on a move away from the club (and yes, that’s still an “if”).

Over the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, Zaha was one of the best players outside the traditional big clubs — the Palace winger scored 19 goals in 62 appearances, and recorded a goal or assist every 207 minutes. But last season, the performances dipped; he played every Premier League match but scored just four times, and averaged a goal contribution every 469 minutes. It’s not just in the scoring stats where Zaha fell behind, either — both his raw creativity and shot creation suffered this year. Over the prior two seasons, Zaha averaged 2.20 shots and 1.72 key passes per 90 minutes; last year, just 1.67 shots and 0.99 key passes per 90.

While there are other factors at play here — Zaha is often marked by two or three defenders, and it’s hard for him if his teammates suffer a dip in form — it’s pretty clear that Zaha’s performances haven’t been as strong this season as in the prior ones. Which tracks and makes all the sense in the world if you have a player who submitted a transfer request, but didn’t get a move because his current club set a valuation nobody would pay.

This is the challenge clubs like Palace, Villa and any other in the “other 12” or “other 14” face regularly — Zaha was one of the league’s best players over the prior few years, and was absolutely worth £80 million to Palace. But when the player doesn’t really want to be at the club anymore and his performance dips, that value decreases. The Eagles still need to find a deal that makes sense to them to sell Zaha, but they figure they’d take this summer is surely lower than the £80 million they insisted on 11 months ago, because he’s now probably not worth that to them or anyone else.

Coming back to Grealish, it’s not to say that he’d react the same way, or suffer the same dip in form if he doesn’t get his move (nor that he desperately wants the move the same way Zaha did) — but it’s nevertheless a difficult calculus for Villa. Jack clearly loves playing for Villa, and I think that sometimes makes it more difficult for us to accept that he’d prefer a move away, particularly to Manchester United, who’ll be playing Champions League football next season. And while we all can talk about wanting Villa to show initiative in the transfer market to show we’re serious about building a team around Jack, it’s still wildly unlikely that Villa qualify for the Champions League any time soon. If playing on that stage is something that matters to Grealish, he’s almost certainly going to have to leave the club to achieve it. When you throw in the struggles Jack’s had getting into the England setup from Villa, it’s even more reasonable he’d want to leave, even though he does love the club.

To me, there is one bad outcome for Villa this window: Grealish is forced to stay when he doesn’t want to be here, and his performances drop next season, similar to Zaha — if Villa are going to hold out for £80 million, Jack actually needs to play to that level. If he doesn’t, it’s a loss for Villa, and they probably go down if Grealish spends most of the season out of form.

The other outcomes are good, in my eyes. Say it’s only Jack’s preference to move and United never come in with a bid that tempts Villa. Great! You’ve got Grealish for another season, and he’s motivated to keep the team in the Premier League. Or, say you settle on a transfer fee to sell Grealish to United for £65 million — it’s lower than what you want, but you can bring in two or three good, motivated Premier League quality players to replace him that you have a chance to develop into the next big-money transfer. That’s also a win, if you spend the money right.

It’s why the top priority for me this summer is avoiding a Zaha-like situation with Grealish. If Jack is going to stay at the club, they need the assurance that his performance levels will stay high and that he’ll stay committed to the club — and while we all really want that to be true, we shouldn’t make transfer decisions based on a fairy tale. There’s a lot working in Villa’s favour here, right? He has a close relationship with Dean Smith and the supporters. He’s wearing the armband to lead his boyhood club onto the pitch week in, week out.

There’s only one guy who knows that perspective, though, and that’s Jack himself. Villa need to use that strong manager-player relationship to understand where Grealish’s head is before engaging in any transfer talk this summer. Because the one truly bad outcome here is a saga that pits Grealish against the leadership of the club he loves.