Aston Villa are a different beast with Jack Grealish, so what happens if he leaves?
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Last Updated: 10/03/19 12:27pm
It seems such an obvious thing to say. 'Team's best player makes Team play better.' But in the case of Jack Grealish, the impact is startling.
Grealish fulfilled a childhood ambition in November in scoring for Aston Villa against Birmingham City. It wasn't quite at the Holte End, but he didn't care much.
At midday on Sunday, Grealish enters a different climate: a packed St Andrew's for the first time, live on Sky Sports Football. He was injured for last season's away derby and suspended the year before that, but has timed his return from his latest injury perfectly.
After that 4-2 win in November, Villa were bouncing. Five weeks into Dean Smith's tenure, they'd won three on the trot and play-offs felt like a minimum, before Grealish was injured two weeks later at West Brom.
An innocuous shin issue caused confusion. Smith said it might only be a week or so, but it ended up being three months, 14 games and just two solitary victories.
It's clear Villa are a different beast with Grealish, but this season more than ever. They dealt with his 27-game absence in 2017/18 rather well, managing to keep a near-50 per cent win rate, though this season Villa's win rate has been 15.4 per cent without the 23-year-old.
|With Grealish||Without Grealish|
|Average goals for||2||1.2|
|Points per game||1.6||1|
|Shots per game||14.6||12.8|
|Passing accuracy final third||72.2%||67.8%|
It's taken them from top-six certainties to desperately needing a win on Sunday to stay in touch.
Villa's statistics are up in almost every department with Grealish this season; they average two goals with him and 1.2 without, they shoot more with him, have more possession, have more passes into the final third and opposition half, and of course win more fouls. Crucially, they've picked up 1.6 points per game with, and just 1 per game without him.
Last season, the chasm in performances with and without Grealish was narrow. Josh Onomah did a decent job stepping in as No 10, Keinan Davis was often used as Villa went direct, but perhaps most significant, Steve Bruce's style was less risky and more focused on defensive solidity. In the end, that was one of the sticks critics used to beat him with as he lost his job in October.
|With Grealish||Without Grealish|
|Average goals for||1.6||1.4|
|Points per game||1.8||1.7|
|Shots per game||13.8||12.3|
Granted, Villa's defence has been shaky without John Terry this season, and a lack of stamina in Villa's full-backs to track back having being pushed further up by Smith has left those centre-backs exposed by opposition wingers.
But in the final third, Conor Hourihane has performed an unfamiliar role to make up for Grealish's absence. So used to picking the ball up from deep and feeding the front four, Hourihane's skills are better utilised in a central midfield two.
Hourihane has been a target for many supporters' complaints in a position he is hugely unfamiliar with, where technique in tight spaces is key. The last time the Irish midfielder had played as a No 10 before this season? December 2014 for Barnsley. And that was a one-off.
In the last two games, sitting deeper, Hourihane admits he has felt more confident, and grabbed himself two goals in the 4-0 win over Derby on Saturday, as well as playing a key role in another goal, spraying the ball out wide after Villa had played out from defence.
So, Grealish is back and Villa's midfield is more aligned with its strengths as we enter a period where only a staggering run of form will see them squeeze into the top six.
There is hope, but the last three months begs the question: what happens if Grealish leaves? He was made captain for the first time in his Villa career on his return on Saturday, a clear indication that Smith wants Grealish to feel he is the main man at Villa.
Whether being the centrepiece for a Championship club, albeit his boyhood club, is enough to hold off interest from the Premier League in the summer remains to be seen.
Villa's recent accounts make for worrying reading; they are still paying Premier League wages despite dwindling revenue, and though new owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens were courageous in turning down big money for Grealish last summer, it may be more difficult to justify this time.
This Sunday's derby may be Grealish's first and last with Villa at St Andrew's. With the parachute payment tap turned off, and FFP complications to boot, a replacement will be even harder to find.