Jack Grealish's seamless transition to the Premier League warrants an England call-up
Quietly, quietly, Jack Grealish is finding his feet back in the Premier League. Like Aston Villa as a side, he’s rather tiptoed out under the lights this season, but as the weeks go by the old convictions grow stronger.
Villa entered the international break with that coupon-wrecking win over Norwich. In truth, it was such an anomalous-looking result that it probably shouldn’t be entirely trusted, but Grealish’s little flashes still felt instructive – the goal was the most vivid highlight, but also that light touch in the first half, which led to Conor Hourihane being chopped down for a penalty. It was the right ball, at the right moment, played in a way which made what happened next inevitable.
These moments are starting to add up. It was Grealish’s quick thinking at the root of Villa’s first win of the season, shown in that quick free-kick which led to Wesley’s goal against Everton. It was him again at the Emirates, with a driving run which parted the Arsenal defence and a pass which left Wesley – again – to tap home. Or that long, counter-attacking run at Tottenham, when a better run by Trezeguet might have resulted in a 2-0 lead.
These are especially interesting passages because they capture the misconception which has defined Grealish since he first appeared. To some, he remains a sort of wind-up toy of a footballer – a gifted, but ultimately mindless dribbler, prone to disappearing down dark alleys in pursuit of his technical vanity. A show pony without proper appreciation for the game's imperatives, essentially.
Maybe it’s the haircut, possibly the socks. Whatever the truth, that first impression has stuck.
But it’s never been fair or accurate and these embers show why. Grealish has tremendous craft. What makes him a rare player is what exists within these small snippets: the ability to attract defenders and draw them in, but also the capacity to see surrounding space and release passes into it at the right moment.
Actually, what’s really intriguing about Grealish – given his aesthetics and they perception they’ve created – is that he’s far more of a continuity player than assumed. He’s not a Xavi or a Sergio Busquets, neither in position nor habit, but he’s still a conductor of moves. He pushes his team-mates into wide positions, he alters the speed and direction of attacks and, unusually for someone of his abilities, he’s a consistently reliable passing option.
He rarely runs on to anything, more often being the player to whom the ball is laid back to; the one who performs the reset of the move in progress.
The hope is that these qualities become more obvious, because Grealish is unquestionably someone of future value to his country. England’s international break has finished with a focus on matters other than football – quite rightly – but one of the lower-key conclusions to be drawn from this past 10 days is that Gareth Southgate doesn’t have a player of his design.
Southgate has quick wingers, even a couple who use the ball really well. He also has creative forwards and midfielders who, if used in the right combination, can rondo their way through most opponents. What he does not possess, though, is an option which is really a blend of all of those traits – a player who can play centrally with Grealish's lithe dynamism and cavalier craft.
That opportunity feels like it’s being obstructed by those old assumptions. It’s slightly strange, for instance, that his form last season wasn’t rewarded with at least a call-up. Now, with the Football League caveat gone, there are fewer excuses.
Working on the basis that he’s limited, that he doesn’t possess the rounded game to be more than a single-dimensioned club player, it’s easy to rationalise. But week by week he’s demonstrating the obvious error in that thinking and, if he’s overlooked for much longer, it will be harder to explain why the prospect of his rainbow of abilities, in concert with England’s best, isn’t piquing the country’s interest more.
Imagine him building triangles with Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling at the corners. Think of the opportunities he could potentially mine for a forward of Harry Kane’s instinct. Grealish needn’t be held aloft and presented as something he’s not, but he’s 24 years old and it’s time to explore these theories.
His performances have merited that chance.
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