AS Jack Grealish closes in on a British-record £100m move to Premier League champions Manchester City, Aston Villa fans are experiencing a gut-twisting mix of emotions.
Most, it seems, feel grateful to have witnessed Grealish in claret and blue for so long, to have felt the vicarious joy of one of their own, a born Villa lad, blossom into one of the game’s superstars while establishing their club back in the top-flight; the beloved poster-boy with the tiny shin pads, big hair and bigger personality.
They are simultaneously – and understandably – disappointed to be confronted with the reality that their hometown hero appears to prefer a future elsewhere; that the long-term contract he signed just last year won’t be seen through; that the ambitious project of which he was the face will have to continue without him.
But that project, that ambition, is the reason Villa fans needn’t mourn their captain’s departure for too long. Grealish or no Grealish, Aston Villa’s direction of travel has them moving up.
Many supporters clung to the wealth and spending power of the club’s owners as an article of faith when rumours of City’s interest in Grealish first surfaced. There was no need to sell, they reasoned, even if a record fee were slapped down on the negotiating table.
That reasoning naively ignored the fact that, as ever in such situations, the player’s will is king – Grealish, at 25, wants to play under the world’s most revered coach, chasing trophies in arguably the game’s most talent-packed squad, and that shouldn’t be held against him.
While Villa’s riches weren’t ultimately enough to resists City’s desire for their sole superstar, though, they have been sufficient to have seen Dean Smith’s squad upgraded significantly already this summer so that Grealish will leave no void of creativity in his wake.
Emiliano Buendia was secured from Norwich City for £33m, and the Argentinian attacker, although surely originally bought to complement Grealish in Villa’s attack, will replace some of the directness and ability to conjure chances for team-mates that will be lost with the England star’s sale.
Buendia created three chances per 90 minutes in the Premier League for a struggling Norwich side, who were ultimately relegated, in the 2019-20 season. Last term, Grealish created 3.1 chances per 90. And Buendia produced 3.7 successful take-ons per 90 in 2019-20, compared to Grealish’s 2.7 last season.
Although they differ slightly stylistically, Buendia, a year Grealish’s junior, offers a similar versatility to the outgoing skipper, able to play on either flank or as a No.10. And while he won’t enjoy the instant fan connection of the home-grown creator, he is no less dynamic and thrilling to watch.
In addition to Buendia, Villa have completed a £30m deal for highly rated and sought-after Jamaican winger Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen.
The 23-year-old hasn’t always been a consistent high performer throughout his Bundesliga ascent, but he possesses devastating pace, the versatility to play on either wing or even as a wing-back, and offers a degree of attacking productivity to match that of Grealish.
Last season, Bailey produced a career-high nine league goals (three more than Grealish in almost identical total minutes played) and eight assists (just two shy of Grealish’s 10). And despite his tender years, Bailey boasts experience at Europa League and Champions League level from his time in Germany and with Belgium’s Genk before that. As is the case with the returning 36-year-old former England international Ashley Young, Bailey has experienced life in the echelons into which Villa are aiming to break.
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What’s more, the presence of Buendia and Bailey in attack – where they can be deployed by Smith alongside Bertrand Traore in service of striker Ollie Watkins – means Villa will be able to spread the creative workload more than in previous seasons, making them less reliant on one star player.
And rather than Grealish’s departure hampering Villa’s efforts to build a squad capable of cracking the European-qualification places, a swift reinvestment of the mammoth fee could see the project only accelerated.
There are rumours of a move for Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham, who enjoyed a productive loan at Villa Park in 2018-19, scoring 26 goals, and who, despite having fallen down the pecking order at Stamford Bridge, ranked first in expected goals per 90 (0.55) last season among players who played more than 1,000 Premier League minutes. Still only 23 and likely extremely available given Chelsea’s pursuit of Romelu Lukaku, the six-cap England international could prove a transformative signing for Villa.
There have been reports, also, of moves for Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse and Todd Cantwell of Norwich to bolster Smith’s midfield options. It is conceivable that Villa could sign all three with the Grealish windfall.
The loss of a beloved superstar will always sting. But in Villa’s case, there are reasons for optimism this season, regardless of whether English football’s most famous shin pads and hair band have found a new home.