It was the start of the 2015/16 season, and Aston Villa were struggling to remain a Premier League club. Their young midfielder Jack Grealish had declared himself ready to represent England rather the the Republic of Ireland, after a breaking into the Villa first team, and it did not go down well.
Grealish had represented Ireland right up to under-21 level through his grandparents’ nationalities. He seemed genuinely proud to represent the Republic, often tweeting about his call-ups with shamrocks and #COYBIG hashtags. So when he did declare for England, it was a bitter pill for Irish fans to swallow.
Thiswas a young and as-yet unproven player. For Grealish to have the confidence, the nerve, to say he’s ready for England was equally hard for English fans to digest. Sure, he’d broken into the Villa team. But this was a poor side that ultimately finished bottom of the Premier League.
He was good, yes. But that bit of arrogance in Grealish did him no favours in the eyes of football fans. He needed to prove himself much more before being anywhere near internation class.
An education in the Championship
Aston Villa’s eventual relegation from the Premier League in 2016 was a turning point in Jack Grealish’s career. Maybe even a blessing in disguise. Over the 3 seasons that Villa spent in the Championship, Grealish shone. He made a total of 89 appearances and scored 14 goals, assisting 16.
He stood out as one of the Championship’s leading talents, and certainly an influential figure for Villa. Sure, they scraped promotion via the play-offs. But looking at the stats, if Grealish had started more games they might have made it automatically. Put simply, without Grealish, Villa’s system just didn’t work as well.
Dean Smith’s tactical tweaks
With the dismissal of Steve Bruce only 11 games into the 18/19 Championship season, Villa were looking shapeless and directionless. Languishing in 12th place after drawing with bottom club Preston, the prospect of promotion looked bleak. Tactically, the club looked stale and conservative. For Grealish, this meant playing in the middle of the pitch and deeper than he’d have liked. A playmaker rather than an offensive player.
The arrival of Dean Smith switched Villa’s focus to a higher press from the back, resulting in Grealish pushing forwards. This meant he was thinking more like a second striker, finding space beyond the actual number 9 and often down the left. His focus was on goal scoring, more than goal creating.
The start of the 19/20 Premier League season has seen much of the same. And this has only helped Grealish continue his growth into an all-round attacking midfielder.
Where would he fit in Southgate’s system?
His current form – particularly in a MOTM performance against Brighton – certainly warrants national team recognition. However his advanced position from midfield is not an option Gareth Southgate usually deploys. He prefers more traditional, deeper central midfielder such as Jordan Henderson, Ross Barkley and Declan Rice. This enables his usual attacking front 3 to run forwards.
Leicester’s James Maddison is probably ahead of him in the pecking order, should Southgate experiment with a number 10-type player. His withdrawal from the last England squad through illness – only to be seen in a casino on the night of the game – will have done him no favours though.
Let’s assume Southgate does decide on a new system with an advanced midfielder just off the main striker. Grealish is ready – he’s earned his chance, and has matured into arguably the most in-form English player in that position.