Aston Villa came into Saturday’s clash with Wolves needing a win.
And that was made perfectly evident by Dean Smith’s team selection. He opted to select two strikers in Mbwana Samatta and Keinan Davis, while Jack Grealish was also moved back into his preferred position – occupying the attacking midfield role.
The plan was clear. Villa needed goals, and they needed their most influential player to be operating in the most menacing positions in order to get them.
It was a bold decision by Smith, but unfortunately for him and for Villa fans, it didn’t pay off.
With Villa looking to him more than ever to lead the team and guide them to a crucial three points, captain Grealish struggled to really impose himself on the game.
Of course, not only was it a chance for Grealish to lead his side to victory, but it was also a chance for him to prove he is worthy of the staggering price tag (recent reports have suggested £80m) that has been thrown onto him. The Englishman has attracted interest from Manchester United for a while now, with it being suggested the Red Devils would need to part ways with a hefty amount should they wish to land his services.
£80m (or £60-70m if Villa are relegated) is no small transfer fee, but this is especially the case considering the financial impact of the coronavirus. As a result, this has led to much talk about whether Grealish is really worth such a large amount.
And footballing fans will have been left with more concerns after Saturday’s display. Not because he isn’t a very talented footballer, but because he should have delivered so much more at such a pivotal point in the season. This will need to change before now and the end of the campaign if he is to convince United or any other club to splash out such a large amount on him.
Since the restart, while Grealish has continued to win fouls and pose a threat on occasion, he has struggled to really influence matches. Against Wolves, the captain was picking up clever positions in the early exchanges, darting from out wide in-field or picking up pockets of space, but he was constantly looking to play to feet and make things happen while playing in front of the Wolves defence.
This made it so comfortable for the away side.
Yes, he is remarkably gifted with the ball at his feet, but his team were crying out for him to change up his game and stretch the Wolves defence with runs in behind. This is what John McGinn specialises in, but Grealish never really looked to do this.
Equally, as a leader and the captain of the team, Grealish should have been the player to realise the need for change, and should have been encouraging his attackers to either find space out on the wing or make a penetrating run in behind the defence.
Make no mistake about it, Grealish is key to this Villa side and a lot of his work often goes unnoticed. He was constantly willing to track back and put a challenge in, while also coming deeper to collect the ball and look to make things happen and dictate play.
But Grealish still has some learning to do, and that was made clear with his display against Wolves.
His reaction after his side went 1-0 down told a thousand stories. Once again, as the leader in the team, the rest of his side would have looked to Grealish to provide the motivation they needed to regroup and search for an equaliser. Yet, there was no reaction, instead Villa looked lost.
They tried to push for an equaliser, but it was so comfortable for Wolves as they weren’t tested. Following Smith’s substitutions, Grealish went on to pop up in numerous areas of the pitch – but it wasn’t actually clear where exactly he was playing.
Grealish cannot singlehandedly win Villa games, as much as fans would like him to. But what should be expected of the talented midfielder is the leadership to guide his team as well as the awareness to spot mistakes and look to correct them during games.
This is what is expected of top footballers and captains. And should he wish to convince Man Utd or any other club that he is worth his valuation, he will need to begin to show these qualities in the remaining games of the season.