THERE was a feeling last summer that if any club was to acquire Jack Grealish, they’d have to overpay for the Aston Villa captain.
Villa’s reported £80m price tag was perceived as being the Midlands club’s attempt at scaring off potential suitors, demanding a fee any interested party would find prohibitive. And the analysis of his suitability for Manchester United, who were most strongly linked with a move, suggested the winger would at best be an expensive extravagance for the 20-time champions, unlikely to figure in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s strongest XI.
The new five-year deal Grealish signed in September ended all speculation over his immediate future and was hailed as a rare victory for a lower-ranked club staving off the advances of one of the ‘Big Six’. And Grealish’s form this season has silenced the doubters who thought he’d make only a marginal impact at United – who Villa face at Old Trafford on Sunday – or any other side at the top end of the Premier League table.
Last season, Grealish was key to Villa’s Premier League survival. His eight league goals – which included a vital strike against West Ham on the final day of the season – was a career best, and his six league assists equalled his previous high mark.
He’d been steadily improving year on year before that in the Championship, too, almost leading to a move to Tottenham at one point, gradually beginning to deliver on the potential he showed when he first broke at senior level as a teenager when Villa were last in the Premier League.
Jack Grealish is having a stellar campaign for Villa, and is performing head and shoulders above most of his fellow professionals.
— ZICOBALL (@ZICOBALL) December 29, 2020
Now, though, at 25, Grealish is elavating his game to a whole new plane. He has already equalled his assists tally for the whole of last season – only Kevin De Bruyne and Son Heung-min have created more goals in the Premier League this term. And with five league goals to his name, he’s well on course to hit double figures for the first time in his career.
This improvement can be seen starkly in Grealish’s underlying stats, too, which suggest his current level of play is sustainable, rather than just a temporary purple patch. His 51 key passes is the highest total in the Premier League so far for 2020-21, four better than second-placed Bruno Fernandes. And his average expected assists per 90 minutes has more than doubled compared to last season, up from 0.19 to 0.39.
In addition to his incisive, chance-creating passing in the attacking third of the pitch, Grealish’s dribbling ability has made him a fan favourite. His 43 successful dribbles is the third-highest total in the Premier League this term.
And Grealish’s performances have inspired Villa to greater heights. They are currently fifth with at least one game in hand over most of the league, which, if won, could see them leapfrog Everton and Leicester and draw within a point of second-placed United.
Where previously Grealish had stood out as the best player on a lower-table or even second-tier team, he is now performing at the level of the Premier League’s finest creative superstars. His belated breakthrough at international level, producing a string of dynamic displays after a long-awaited England debut in September, is evidence of his ability to produce at the highest level.
Two days later and still watching this touch from @JackGrealish ✨
— B/R Football (@brfootball) November 18, 2020
And Villa boss Dean Smith thinks the Grealish will only get better in the near future.
"Yes, there's more to come, definitely,” Smith said. “There's still improvements. Sometimes he picks the ball up a little bit too deep at times. He wants to be involved in the game all the time. He's had a different role in the last couple of games, playing as a No. 10, and he's played it very well.
"He is on another level, he's playing wonderful football. At West Brom it looked like he was playing in the playground with his mates.
"It was a fantastic performance and the levels he's got to now, we need to keep pushing him and squeezing even more out of him where he can. He's a joy to watch at the moment.”
Another stellar display at Old Trafford on Friday could convince United to return for Grealish in an upcoming transfer window. If so, they’ll probably find Villa’s valuation of their captain has changed. For one of the most productive and entertaining creative players in the Premier League whose best years lie ahead of him, that £80m price tag suddenly feels inadequate.