Jack Grealish may still be some way off living up to the outlandish Paul Gascoigne comparisons unloaded on him recently, but there can be little doubt of the Aston Villa star’s supreme abilities.
Few players in elite football possess the grace and effortlessness on the ball of Grealish, who has come to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s finest technicians.
But there is even more to his game than just simply looking graceful – his influence on high-flying Villa has been phenomenal.
It seems remarkable that his first call-up was as recent as August – even then, he was not included in the initial list, only getting his break after the withdrawals of Marcus Rashford and Harry Winks.
It was not until October that Grealish was handed his full debut, impressing in the 3-0 friendly win over Wales as he offered the kind of off-the-cuff creativity that has so often been missing from England’s largely monotonous style of play under Gareth Southgate.
Yet Southgate’s trepidation seemed to remain – Grealish did not play a single minute in their next two games against Belgium and Denmark.
But the man who Rio Ferdinand believes is the Premier League’s most influential player respective to their own team is showing the kind of form that would make him virtually undroppable for any other manager.
The problem with Grealish – and one must assume this is at least partly why Southgate has been holding him back – is that his defensive output is pretty poor, and he is particularly ineffective with regards to winning possession back as a consequence of pressing.
But sometimes you have to accept a player’s deficiencies because of his other abilities. Similarly, Grealish is not in the Villa team to win possession back, so why should we judge him too harshly on this?
The fact is, Villa have been one of the revelations of the season in the Premier League, winning five of their seven matches, and Grealish has been central to so much of what they do.
First of all, his haul of four goals and five assists from seven games is truly excellent, but we can delve much deeper to understand the extent of his influence.
Grealish has been involved in 10 goal-ending sequences this term, second to only Harry Kane and Son Heung-min (both 13), while he also ranks third in the division for involvement in sequences that end with a shot (51).
This shows his importance to Villa going forward, with Grealish routinely involved in their most rewarding moves.
Panache and productivity
Still require evidence of Grealish’s impact? There is plenty more to come, and this gives us the chance to highlight his ability on the ball but also how he is using that to Villa’s advantage.
Ball carriers or players who like to dribble can be among the most frustrating on a pitch – you can become accustomed to expecting them to succeed every time, but in reality holding on to the ball, particularly when under pressure, is one of the toughest parts of the game.
It is normal to see centre-backs and full-backs rank well with regards to ball carries as they are often the players with the most space when in possession, yet Grealish bucks the trend.
The Villa virtuoso has performed 149 carries this season, making him the only non-defender in the top five, an impressive feat as it show he carries the ball frequently despite operating in – theoretically – the most congested area of the pitch.
His ball carries equate to 1,980 metres, second only to Adam Webster (2,032m) despite 48 fewer attempts than the Brighton and Hove Albion defender. However, Grealish comes out at the top with respect to progressive carry distance (1,269m) and 15 of them have included a take-on, a tally bettered by just five players.
But most importantly, Grealish is actually making an impact at the end of them as well. A league-high nine of his carries have resulted in a key pass, another nine have led to a shot (ranked third) and three of those produced a goal (ranked second).
The form and focus Grealish has been showing in the Premier League – in which he is the fourth most creative player this term with 19 key passes – should ensure he is one of the first picks in this England side, a team that is too often overly cautious.
But it remains to be seen if he has done enough to eradicate Southgate’s caution.
A likely start in Thursday’s friendly with the Republic of Ireland, whom Grealish represented at youth level, might be a relatively meaningless contest on the face of it, but for Villa’s captain it could provide the opportunity to induce a long-awaited epiphany in the mind of Southgate.