Defeat in the play-off final confirmed many things for Aston Villa FC – one of which was the seemingly inevitable sale of Jack Grealish.
Villa’s homegrown no.10 had a standout season in the Championship, winning over the hearts of fans everywhere with a string of high-calibre performances, throughout the season, that carried the Villa all the way to Wembley. Under the wing of in-house veteran John Terry, it was clear to see how Jack’s game had developed since his injury: He had massively enhanced his muscle mass, which combined with his unique dribbling ability, made him seem impossible to dispossess at times. He had reinvented himself as a central midfielder, and appeared far more mature, far more intelligent – his direct playing style won so many free-kicks for Villa, thanks to his newfound knowledge to read defenders and make fouling him an inevitability. On his day, he was the best player in the division – the victory over Wolves being evidence of this.
But unfortunately for Jack, his goals and assists tally doesn’t do him any justice. He netted only three times throughout the campaign, collecting just six assists, which must make Villa’s original £40M asking price seem ludicrous for those who are unfamiliar with our star man. He is a different player completely to the pubescent winger we saw emerge during Villa’s Premier League decline, who most (it seems) are basing his current abilities on. The truth is, his journey from being a future prospect to being the first name on the team sheet has been remarkable – and these statistics prove it.
One of the most noticeable developments in Grealish’s game has been his defensive capabilities. His attacking work rate is now matched entirely by his desire to help his team at the other end of the pitch, which can be seen by his tackles per game (TPG). Jack averages 1.3 TPG, which doesn’t sound all too remarkable – but when you consider that John Terry (who was selected in many different editions of the Championship TOTY) only managed 0.8 TPG during his spell at Villa Park – it shows you the extent to which Jack has adapted his game. If you compare his defensive actions from last season to his contributions during his time in the Premier League, his improvements are even more evident. He averaged more tackles, more blocks and more clearances than he did during his time in England’s top tier.
His change in position has meant that Jack has adopted a free-roam role in the heart of the Villa side, often dropping deep into the midfield to collect possession. He created 51.1% of his chances from ‘the hole’, but almost 20% came from deep on the left wing, with 10.6% coming from the opposite right flank. Jack forged a total of 47 chances from just 22 starts in the league this year – a feat that was only bettered by Robert Snodgrass and Conor Hourihane, who started 41 and 43 games respectively. His passing accuracy was also the best of any midfielder at the club this season (85%), with only James Chester (87%) being the only individual to start a league match that had a better completion rate.
But how does he compare to other players in the league? Well, based on stats website Squakwa’s ‘Performance Score’, which is a total that is calculated based on how positively a player impacts a game, Jack was the 2nd highest ranked Championship midfielder that played less than 30 matches. He scored 37.56 for the campaign, which is higher than the likes of Adama Traore and Lucas Piazon, who also made the overall top 10. To put the figure into context, Wolves’ Ruben Neves could only manage 17.90 for his title-winning efforts over the past year. This, if anything, proves that much of Jack’s best work often goes under the radar.
The effects that Jack had on his team cannot be underestimated, either. Villa played 19 league matches without Grealish last year, winning nine, which equates to a 48% win ratio. There were 24 matches were he was part of the side however, and Villa won 15 of those matches, with seven of those coming consecutively. Of the matches where he featured, Villa’s win percentage rises to 63%. His discipline (which many consider to be a drawback of Jack’s) was also very respectable for a central midfielder, picking up just four yellow cards, which equates to just under one every four and a half matches. This is also the same frequency ratio he holds for his picking up Man of the Match awards – One every 4.25 games.
It is easy to see why fans of other teams dislike Jack – he’s incredibly irritating to play against, and his ‘partyboy’ lifestyle during the early years of his career certainly didn’t impress the vast majority. But in recent years, he has had several role models that have played a huge role in placing him on the right tracks. The aforementioned John Terry, the late Ray Wilkins (who Jack payed a particularly touching tribute to upon his passing), Steve Bruce, just to name a few. I don’t blame the footballing community for scoffing at his apparent valuation, either. If I hadn’t watched him on such a regular basis over the last 24 months, I would be saying that £40M is ludicrous as well.
But the fact is, I have. We all have. Its very rare nowadays to see an U23 player so focused, so dedicated on improving his game and playing so impressively for his boyhood club. We have seen so many graduates of the Aston Villa academy fail to prove themselves in claret & blue over recent years: Gary Gardner, Callum Robinson, Graham Burke – even Gabriel Agbonlahor to an extent, all left (or will leave) Villa Park knowing that they never quite fulfilled their potential during their respective times here. But not Jack. Should he leave this summer, I for one will spur him on wherever his chosen destination is, because he truly does love our club. It would have been so easy for him to become lost in the fame, the partying and the money – as so many young players do, but he wanted more than that. He wanted to play, and play well, for the team that he had grown up supporting himself. And he achieved just that. There is no doubt that he has unfinished business in B6, but that is the cruel world of football.
If he does leave, then perhaps demanding £40M would be slightly too optimistic. Spurs did bid £15M for him before the start of the World Cup, but given the lack of movement since, it would seem that was deemed too little. His legacy may not be the one we all dreamt of, granted. We probably won’t see Jack play out his entire career at Villa, scoring goals every other game and establishing himself in the England setup in the process – but he will leave Villa knowing that the money spent on him helped his club stave off potentially fatal financial crisis. And given our current state, I think that works for all parties.
As always, let me know your thoughts on Jack, his valuation or anything related to the situation on Twitter, at @_DJMW.