If there’s one thing in football that isn’t up for debate, it’s that Jack Grealish is magic.
And by magic, I’m not just alluding to his precocity as a creative force on the pitch by means of some well-worn footballing cliché speak – his feats of sorcery have far surpassed that.
For starters, he’s lifted the curse that the English media cast on any young domestic talent who dares to step a foot out of line while still maturing.
As soon as a young Grealish transfigured his boyhood club into FA Cup finalists in 2015, the dark arts began – first casting a storm over his international future after he had the temerity to snub Ireland, and then identifying him as the protagonist of some fairly harmless if pretty juvenile partying, most notoriously in sunny Marbella.
When Grealish dropped down to the Championship in 2016, he held the unwanted distinction of losing every single game that he was involved in as Villa were relegated – and it was natural to assume that the next press coverage he’d be involved in would be entitled ‘Ten Wonderkids Who Never Reached Their Potential’.
Something supernatural followed… Grealish refused to bend under the media pressure, and worked long and hard to earn back his reputation, turning some Championship defenders into dust in the process.
Now an established Premier League player (who admittedly hasn’t quite managed to magic away the concerns about his proclivity for partying), Grealish’s career may have taken its most charmed turn, in the midst of a confusing period for football in general.
While it would be wrong to look for silver linings amid the devastating impact of COVID-19, in the world of sport its ramifications have undeniably and unexpectedly reset the clock for so many, giving those with injuries the chance to heal their bodies and those lacking form the opportunity to rest their minds.
In Grealish’s case, it has bought him that most precious of prizes; an extra year in which he can decisively prove that he deserves to start as an attacking midfielder for the England national team at the postponed Euro 2020.
Fans of mathematics will be pretty baffled as to how Grealish has zero (0) caps for England so far.
If you add together his goals and assists this season, they come to 13. If you size up his competitiors for a spot as England’s number 10, that’s one more than Dele Alli’s combined total, two more than Mason Mount’s, three more than James Maddison’s and four more than Todd Cantwell’s.
However, we all know that football is a little bit more than just raw data, and that Grealish isn’t the first trequartista on Gareth Southgate’s teamsheet speaks to the caveats that have been fairly raised when discussing his career.
If you asked a lot of people (particularly in the Twitter replies to any England squad announcement) why they thought Grealish wasn’t playing for England, they’d say ‘it’s because England don’t pick any players outside of the Sky Six!!!’
And, though it sounds harsh, Southgate has every right to be cautious in selecting Grealish on those grounds.
The reality is that a player of Grealish’s quality, playing at a club in Aston Villa who at present cannot match the resources of Chelsea, Leicester or Spurs, is less obliged to think about the collective.
Grealish’s performance against Newcastle in November was one of the best by an attacking midfielder in the league this season – again and again he was able to pick the ball up from his own half, much like a point guard in basketball, and drive forward with it, at liberty to shoot or try an ambitious cross-field pass whenever he felt like it.
But unlike basketball, at the highest level of football (unless your surname is Messi), attacking responsibility is shared, and cavalier instincts have to be restrained for the good of the team.
This is most applicable to international football, where there is a real premium on players who can do the dirty work. Think Blaise Matuidi in 2018, or an ageing Pepe at Euro 2016 – even Harry Kane is forced to reign in his goalscoring instincts and drop deeper when he dons an England shirt.
Of course, that’s not to suggest that Grealish should reinvent himself as a ball-winning midfielder or brutal centre-back, but Southgate is currently lacking evidence that Grealish can successfully adapt his naturally attacking style of play to an environment where he isn’t the big fish.
If we look at how many tackles have been won in the attacking third by individual players this season, Grealish is well behind the likes of Richarlison, Mason Mount, Roberto Firmino and James Maddison – but Southgate will expect him to be part of a coordinate press in the opposition half.
So how can Grealish show Southgate that he can be that self-sacrificing attacker for England?
Well, this is where his club future comes into it, and there are two options.
The first of these involves Villa staying up, and Grealish quite naturally choosing to continue the Premier League adventure with the club he’s supported all his life.
If Grealish wants to prove, however, that he’s not just coasting in a familiar environment, he needs to use the freedom afforded to him to prove that he’s not just one of several good English attacking midfielders, but comfortably the best one.
For all the criticisms that have been levelled at him, in one of his worst seasons, Dele has managed to scrape together one more goal and two less assists than Grealish.
Grealish frankly needs to steal this ability if he stays at Villa, and if he still manages to exert an influence in games where space for him is few and far between (for example the Carabao Cup Final against Manchester City), he will potentially double his output and make himself impossible for Southgate to ignore even at a weaker club.
Then there’s the option that all Villa fans fear – Dean Smith’s men slip into the second tier and Grealish says a tearful goodbye to Villa Park.
While Grealish will have his pick of iconic stadiums to play his home games at, it isn’t quite as simple as picking the shiniest one.
Take the undoubted favourite for his services at the moment in Manchester United. They currently have a guy called Bruno Fernandes in Grealish’s preferred number 10 position who is pretty good, and the suggestion, according to The Athletic, is that the Englishman would play on the right wing at Old Trafford.
If he does succumb to Ole Gunner Solskjaer’s siren song, he’ll either be a rotation option or playing in a position where Southgate’s options include Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling – in other words, back to square one.
What would make much more sense is for him to move to a ‘big’ club where he is needed – Arsenal, missing a Mesut Özil successor, as one particularly glaring example, while Spurs, coached by the fella who got the best out of Özil, Wesley Sneijder and Grealish’s former mentor Joe Cole, have not quite replaced Christian Eriksen.
For his next trick, then, Grealish needs to work out where he’s most valued and most challenged, be it at Villa or elsewhere. With all those pieces in place, he’ll be in the very best position to conjure up an England berth for one of their most anticipated tournament appearances in recent years.