Captain. Leader. Talisman.
That’s what Jack Grealish has become at Aston Villa since his debut back in 2014, but the Midlands club – believe it or not – could actually benefit from his departure this summer.
Grealish has been linked with a host of big-name sides, namely Manchester United, with an £80m price tag slapped on the English playmaker.
There’s no doubting the midfield man’s ability stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of his teammates but that in itself is part of the problem. It has been well documented that the 24-year-old was the most fouled Premier League player during 2019/20 and his dribbling stats are among the best in Europe.
When Eden Hazard used to reign supreme in these domains during his time in England it was an indication of the diminutive Belgian’s importance at the heart of Chelsea’s dominance. In Grealish’s case, they hint at a more sinister issue.
The Villans academy graduate ranks highest for goals, assists, shots per game, key passes and dribbles, as well as being chopped to the floor more than anyone else. His importance to the 2019 play-off winners cannot be understated, with everything of significance going through Grealish.
Without their key man, Villa would almost certainly be preparing for life in the Championship next month.
However, that is not a sustainable model to take forward. There is only so long one man can carry a team on his back, and while the high dribbling and most fouled stats are evidence of Grealish’s quality, it is an equally damning reflection of the players that surround him.
The reason Grealish feels the need to hang on to the ball so long is usually down to one of two things. He either needs to drag his team up the pitch after a sustained attack and period of possession from the opposition, or he simply has no options to release the ball as his teammates haven’t made the right runs.
Similar players such as Mason Mount and Bruno Fernandes recorded 1.1 dribbles per 90 minutes compared to Grealish’s two. The options that the Chelsea and Manchester United pair had around them dwarfed that of Grealish’s and therefore led to a far more balanced attack at their respective clubs.
It is therefore no coincidence that Grealish and Wilfried Zaha, another man tipped for a move to bigger and better things, were constantly hauled down, as they not only had nowhere else to go, they are clearly the standout players for their sides.
But when your main threat can be so easily identified and nullified you have a real issue. It is often said about teams such as Burnley, Wolves and Sheffield United that their sum is far greater than the total of their individual parts.
They have no one player that stands out among the crowd but their team efforts mean they constantly overachieve. The same can’t be said about Villa. Their predictable nature almost led to an instant return to England’s second-tier.
That is why if Dean Smith can get a fee anywhere near the £80m mark he should take it, no matter how hard it may be to do so.
Clubs such as Chelsea, Napoli and Manchester City have already shown that there is money to be spent in this transfer window, despite the coronavirus pandemic affecting team’s finances, and Villa should capitalise on this while they can.
This summer will be the perfect time to pick up some bargains as smaller clubs feel the financial impact of Covid-19. Now Brentford have failed to gain promotion, their famed front-three will undoubtedly be available at the right price.
The same can be said for Queens Park Rangers’ starlet Eberechi Eze, who has already been the subject of failed £12m bids from West Ham and Crystal Palace. Villa have the opportunity to build a formidable side thanks to the foundations that Grealish has laid. But if they want to progress as a team, they should move on from their star man.