Jack Grealish: Is Aston Villa star ready for England call-up?
Grealish is seen as a trickster, but there is far more to him
Last Updated: 07/11/19 1:50pm
He's been knocking on the door for a while, but now Jack Grealish's Premier League form could earn him an England call-up. Gerard Brand takes a deeper look at his credentials...
At any given time over the past two decades, England have suffered from a shortage of something.
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A shortage of left-sided players through the Sven-Goran Eriksson era. A shortage of tiki-taka midfielders to compete with Spain's dominance. A shortage of young talent, or anyone, to replace the Golden Generation under Steve McClaren.
More recently, playmakers had been the missing ingredient. But England now have options in abundance. Aston Villa's Jack Grealish may be the latest in a crowded interview process, but where could he fit in?
Trickster? Not necessarily
There is a misconception of Grealish. He's a target for opposition players and fans alike due to his distinct appearance - the slick back hair, short socks and postcard shinpads - and the time he spends horizontal.
That Grealish 'goes down easily' doesn't go down well with those who watch him most regularly. His apparent affinity with the turf is as much to do with his intelligence in drawing the foul as it is his quality. He is Villa's main creative outlet, so will be targeted; he has won 41 fouls this season in the Premier League, more than any other player.
But Grealish isn't just a trickster. In fact, he is barely that. He consistently covers the distance for Villa - their top runner in all but two games this season - and their best passer over short and long distance.
His passing accuracy over the entire pitch is 85.6 per cent, and 83.2 per cent in the opposition half. He has created 25 chances, the sixth-highest of any Premier League player.
Grealish is also a ball-carrier, capable of bringing Villa from defensive third to final third. That's less of a requirement for England when they are favourites, but the toughest tests are just eight months away.
Jack Grealish in PL 19/20 ranked among all PL players (500 mins minimum)
|Passing accuracy opp half||83.2%||23rd|
Coming of age for the international stage
England boss Gareth Southgate stated in March - when Grealish was shining in the Championship - that the midfielder must be playing Premier League football to be considered for England. After helping Villa win their play-off final against Derby, Grealish took a while to get started in the top flight this season, and though there will be inevitable question marks as to whether he can step up, his character shouldn't be doubted.
Grealish was made captain by Villa on his return from injury in March, prompting a 10-game winning run which ended in promotion. He was Villa's talisman, instrumental in grinding out victories.
And off the pitch, Grealish is keeping a lower profile. His antics in the summer of 2015 - pictured passed out in the road in Tenerife on holiday - set the tone for Villa's dismal relegation campaign. There were the inevitable 'Hippy Crack' photos, too.
Tim Sherwood, his manager at the time, told the Telegraph last month that Grealish was the closest thing he had seen to Paul Gascoigne. On the pitch, that is. But his behaviour off it was concerning.
There's evidence he has matured since. The sucker punch from a Birmingham City fan in March's second-city derby would have shaken many. Grealish got up and scored the winner.
He also kept his powder dry when speculation of a move to Tottenham was rife last summer, and though he has a lot to say on the pitch, he backs himself without causing a fuss. There is pressure at a club like Villa, where expectation sometimes trumps reality, but England is different. Grealish has shown signs that he could cope.
Given his recent squad selections, Southgate seems happy to pick at least three playmakers. For Grealish, the competition comes in Mason Mount, Ross Barkley and James Maddison.
Mount showed the right attitude in his full debut in the defeat at Czech Republic, but was left struggling at No 10, having impressed for Chelsea on the left of a midfield or forward three. But with Frank Lampard's Chelsea flying, the potential to improve is there.
Barkley is liked by Southgate, but is not getting the game time under Lampard of late, completing just one Premier League game this season. However, after a run of underwhelming performances for England, he did impress in Bulgaria.
Maddison has dazzled for Leicester, and has been in Southgate's last two squads, but after withdrawing from the October internationals with illness, he was pictured in a casino. He messaged Southgate to explain, but at the time the England boss was more focused on his available players.
"I'm sure he recognises now that when you're involved with England, then there is a different sort of spotlight on you. For any young player coming into the squad, they probably aren't as aware of that."
There is still a gap for Grealish to sneak in, but it is unlikely he'd be playing in his preferred position.
The 24-year-old has been starting on the left of a three for Villa this season, but has a free role of late, such is his ability to pull a herd of opposition players and create space for others, or take over the ball from deep.
"One thing he's got is his great ability to hold onto the football and create openings for others and himself," his manager Dean Smith told Sky Sports. "He draws the opposition into him. Very often you'll see him with the ball and he'll have two or three of the opposition around him which means there's going to be space on the pitch for others."
If Southgate wants to use him, pinning him to the left of a midfield three or at No 10 may not be advised, and that's where Grealish's inclusion gets tricky.
If England play 4-3-3, Raheem Sterling is cemented to the left of the three, Jadon Sancho to the right. If they play 4-2-3-1, the No 10 spot is up for grabs. That's likely to be the furthest forward Grealish could play, even if Southgate goes back to a five-man defence.
Qualification is nearly wrapped up, and Southgate will be pinpointing who he can take to Euro 2020 for the big games. Southgate must pick a playmaker capable of doing it all with discipline.
Though Grealish is defensively-minded - he ranks high for tackle success in the Premier League, too - his best work in the final third comes with freedom.
Is it his time?
Grealish has been waiting for this opportunity since controversially picking England in 2015 following appearances for Republic of Ireland's Under-21s.
That came at a time where Grealish's masterful performance in the 2015 FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool bolted him into the limelight.
Within 24 hours there were double-page newspaper spreads, calls into family members and the childhood pictures with a ball at his feet.
It didn't happen quickly for "England's new star", but that may have been a blessing.
He has grown since with heavy attention, and now it feels the right time to test him on the international stage. Southgate is fair, knows Villa well, and knows Grealish well from his Under-21 days. The door is open for him to stake a claim.
Watch Grealish in action in Wolves vs Aston Villa on Super Sunday from 1pm on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event; Kick-off 2pm.