Overrated. Future England star. Premier League bound. Championship standard. Those are just some of the perceptions that are made by supporters when referring to the much-talked-about Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish.
In the last six months, the Claret & Blue star has had two bites of returning to the Premier League; at first with his boyhood club in May, which resulted in them losing the play-off final to Fulham at Wembley. And then, he had the opportunity of joining Tottenham, but new investment at the then financially-stricken club saw the midfielder remain in B6.
Whether Grealish has the qualities to play at the top level remains open for debate. But, the arrival of Dean Smith is changing the way Villa’s academy product is playing as we will analyse below:
Sit Deep With Bruce
In the five games Smith has been in charge of Villa, Grealish has been more forward-thinking when he has been without the ball. During Smith’s first few training sessions with Grealish, he worked on the midfielders off-the-ball work rather than what he can do with it.
This resulted in the 23-year-old taking up positions higher up the pitch rather than the deep (ish) positions he used to find himself in under Steve Bruce, as you can see below.
In the opening game of the season, when Villa beat Hull City 3-1 away from home, not only was the team less attack-minded than they are now. But Grealish would not run beyond the striker like he is now, nor would he position himself inside the penalty area when the ball is behind him with a teammate.
The same can be seen during Villa’s 2-2 draw at home to Brentford earlier on in the campaign when Smith was still in charge of the London club.
More forward-thinking with Smith
However, since Smith’s arrival, the boyhood Villa fan has instructed his defensive unit to press higher up the pitch, with the full-backs hugging the touchline in the opponent’s half and anchor-man Conor Hourihane playing the role as the deepest midfielder. Added with that, midfield duo Grealish and John McGinn have been drilled to press higher up and make those runs into the penalty area.
As a result of Villa being higher up the pitch, Smith can push Grealish into more attacking positions where he is thinking more like a striker rather than a playmaker.
In the first image above, you can see during Villa’s 3-0 win away at Derby County a fortnight ago, Grealish was not sitting in those pocket of spaces outside of the penalty area. Instead, he was acting like a second striker as Villa tried to suffocate their promotion rivals as high up the pitch as possible. In the second image below, Villa have two midfielders, plus striker Tammy Abraham in the area. Not seen before under Bruce.
In the next image, Grealish is looking to run beyond striker Tammy Abraham as he attempts to win a header.
More goals to come?
One area where Grealish can be rightly criticised for is his lack of goals. The Solihull-born player has only netted on nine occasions in the second tier of English football. But could that change under Smith?
As mentioned above, Smith is changing Grealish’s game in the final third and the way he is thinking without the ball. This has resulted in some success, but what the long-term outcome of this is, once again, remains to be seen.
During Villa’s 2-0 win at home to Bolton last month, Grealish’s hunger to now run beyond the striker did pay off when he netted against Phil Parkinson’s men.
As you can see from the two images above, Grealish is beyond striker Abraham, who has the ball as Grealish is on the shoulder of the opposition defender. As a result of that change in mindset, he opens the scoring for Villa when Abraham plays him through on goal.
There is no doubt that Grealish is still wanting to collect the ball deep in Villa’s half, but the more Smith works on his game, the more advanced positions he will take up. As a result, supporters will see his most-critiqued area improved; scoring goals! At times, Grealish’s strength is his weakness. He has this great ability to pick the ball up from deep and run at opposition players into the final third. However, if his starting position is much higher up the pitch and he is spending less time on the ball then it could perhaps result in him being more efficient in front of goal.
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