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Have Aston Villa become a better side without Jack Grealish?

Jack Grealish
(Image credit: Getty)

There are times when it appears that clubs are in a contest to provide the most imaginative and memorable way to announce signings. Instead of getting Alexis Sanchez to play the piano – something that seemed all the more ill-advised when his Manchester United career proved a dismal failure – Aston Villa settled for an old-fashioned bolt out of the blue when they announced they had bought Danny Ings.

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It felt a rarity, a deal few saw coming. The shock more than compensated for the lack of a gimmick. It was a fine method of cushioning what could have been a crushing blow. But in their own way, Villa had already found a way of announcing Jack Grealish’s departure and turning a negative into a positive. Bringing in Leon Bailey was a sign the talismanic captain was on his way.

It could also enable Villa to perform an unusual feat: to sell their outstanding individual and emerge as a stronger side. Liverpool relapsed after losing Luis Suarez, despite spending all of the proceeds of his sale. Only one of the seven players Tottenham signed when Gareth Bale left was an unqualified success, in Christian Eriksen. Getting a windfall is one thing, spending it well another altogether. As the local lad turned captain, the idiosyncratic entertainer, Grealish had a symbolic importance. He leaves a huge hole and the football food chain dictates that finding a replacement of a similar calibre is all but impossible: the top clubs have already recruited them.

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So it requires a collective capacity to compensate for his departure. Villa’s summer business and budget seems to give them that, especially as it is apparent there is enough money left for another buy, whether James Ward-Prowse, Todd Cantwell or someone else, as well as the probability that Axel Tuanzebe will return on loan to a club where he excelled on loan in 2018/19; Villa already have a fine, and fast-improving, centre-back partnership in Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa but this summer is giving them more strength in depth and options.

And without burdening any with the task of duplicating Grealish’s contribution, they have already added three high-quality attackers. The numbers only form part of the picture but they show the class of the arrivals. Emi Buendia, who had looked bought to dovetail with Grealish, got 15 goals and as many assists in the Championship. Bailey mustered 15 goals and 10 assists in various competitions. Ings’ 12 Premier League goals followed 22 in 2019/20; over two seasons, he has averaged a goal every 147 minutes for a bottom-half team. 

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They represent three very different types of threats: the creator, the speedster and the finisher. It does not automatically mean their impact for Norwich, Bayer Leverkusen and Southampton respectively will be replicated in the Midlands, but they give Villa a broader attacking armoury. Ings was the joint second top scorer and Buendia ranked fourth for chances created in the Premier League in 2019-20. Bailey has belonged among the Bundesliga’s most threatening wingers.

None was a one-season wonder. Each can be deemed a potential match-winner; as Villa only prevailed in three of the 14 league matches Grealish did not start last year, his significance had been apparent even as Bertrand Traore, Anwar El Ghazi and Ollie Watkins compiled fine goal tallies.

Tactically, Ings’ addition may be the most intriguing. Watkins was both a big-game scorer and a revelation in his debut campaign. Villa now seem to have two first-choices, prompting the question if they will be paired in a change of shape or if the younger man will revert to the left-sided role he occupied for Dean Smith at Brentford. If so, despite three signings, Watkins could be a very different player occupying Grealish’s position. It all gives Smith both choices and a potentially potent bench, even if Villa need to adapt to the absence of the ball-carrier and free-kick winner supreme.

When one star player goes and a host of cheaper players are brought in, there is a temptation to say quality has been replaced by quantity. The prices of Buendia, Bailey and Ings – around £90 million – are a rebuttal to that notion. So are their talents. These look three genuinely excellent buys. If Grealish helped power Villa from the lower half of the Championship to their highest finish for a decade, his legacy could be a further improvement after his departure. This may be a counter-intuitive case of a team losing their best player and getting better.

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