INJURY ISSUE: HOW IS JACK GREALISH'S ABSENCE AFFECTING ASTON VILLA?
For the Villa faithful, there are few if any more damning words than to hear of the omission of Jack Grealish, who has been struck down by injury in recent times.
Indeed, he has not featured for his club since playing the full 90 minutes of a 0-0 draw away to Brighton on February 13th owing to a shin injury that had been sustained in training.
But, as a return seemed crucially imminent, the 25-year old is set to be out of action for the next couple of weeks after pulling up in a training session.
By Villa boss Dean Smith’s own admission, reinvigorating Grealish into the gears had come prematurely.
“No, he’s not (fit),” said Smith before Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Liverpool.
“Myself and Jack were quite optimistic to get him back a bit sooner than he probably should and he’s had a setback that will probably put him back a couple of weeks.”
No doubt, that will come as an extra frustration for the Birmingham side following their struggles in recent weeks, though the desperation is more than easy to reason with.
You can delve and dive as deep into the depths of the Premier League as you wish, and you will have to do a monumental job of that to discover a player who bears equal, or more importance to their side as Grealish does to his beloved Aston Villa.
After all, he is the architect, the orchestrator, the leader and above all, the symbol of representation at Villa Park. On his flamboyant shoulders, he carries the hopes of half a city (the UK’s second biggest to be precise) and an entire football club, also one of the country’s biggest.
They rely on him, and there is no shame in that as most teams would with a player of Grealish’s prowess; each week at the fabled stadium well, in pre-pandemic times anyway, all eyes were routinely stapled to Grealish, who burdens that unique way of alluring audiences.
Even now with the norm of experiencing the action through our television screens and indulging in home comforts, Grealish is still the fluorescent beam of light that the unified set of eyes naturally swarm to for more reasons than one could begin to name.
There are a few that I can, though. He possesses that crafty elegance to effortlessly weave in and out of defences, almost like a bird gliding through the treetops. And, with skill and speed to burn, how many backlines fancy their chances against him?
Well, not many to be honest, and as can be visioned, a horde of Premier League managers, players and supporters galore breathed a collective sigh of relief upon the news of his injury setbacks. But not those connected to Villa, who have seen their fortunes dwindle in the agonising absence of their christened behemoth.
In the eight games that the Villains have played without the exuberance of Grealish, they have only claimed victory on two occasions, a 1-0 win away to Leeds and a 3-1 victory at home to Fulham at the beginning of the month.
To boot, that has been tethered with two draws and four losses, the most notable of those defeats being a 1-0 loss at basement side Sheffield United, who secured merely their fourth victory of the season in the process.
As a result, Villa’s European ambitions- which appeared an improbable conquest at the start of the campaign but a very achievable one not so long ago, have diminished somewhat.
Though they still hold 11th spot, a respectable achievement given their flirtation with relegation last year, 5 points now bridges them from Europa League qualification, with Tottenham occupying the final continental place at the time of writing. When Grealish was in the team, the divide between themselves and seventh-place was down to a sole point.
Villa’s attacking game has obtained widespread attention all season long and the appraisal is thoroughly justified, too. On the same token, much of it can be attributed to the efforts of Grealish’s qualities in the final third.
Expected goals (xG), a metric used to measure the quality of goalscoring chances, offers a telling insight into how they have regressed from an offensive point of view as of late; before Grealish’s injury, Villa generated shots worth roughly 1.4 non penalty-goals per match, but without him, that figure drops down to 0.9.
With their talisman on the field, they registered 26.7 touches in the opposition box per 90, something of a real testament to the spark of creativity he breathes into the side. As you would expect, that statistic has lowered in his absence, with the Villains now touching the ball 19.6 times in the opposition area p90.
Also, whilst Grealish has been sidelined, Smith’s side have gone from taking 13.2 shots per 90 to 10.7 which, whilst it is hardly an astronomical downturn, it does magnify how productive the 25-year old is in attacking areas.
Grealish himself ranks amongst the best performers in not just the division, but across the entire continent. As per WhoScored, the England International ranks 5th in terms of average match rating, with only Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane and Gerard Moreno eclisping his score of 7.73, an attestation of world-class consistency.
The perennial playmaker beholds a footballing arsenal to captivate pretty much anyone, though one of his most profound, effective qualities is his ability to progress possession deep into the final third. It bookmarks him as perfect for a team like Villa who, with 48.7% possession per match (12th in the division), sometimes rely on quick counter attacks for their goals. In this particular element, his numbers are nothing short of sensational.
Per90, Grealish sits in the top 99 percentile for progressive carries with 11.61 and accompanies that with 5.85 progressive passes, which also puts him in the top 96%.
Moreover, Grealish’s chance creation numbers typically make for dignified viewing as, across Europe, the Villa captain dispatches the most key passes per game with 3.4, a metric that positions him ahead of the likes of Kevin De Bruyne (3.0), Thomas Muller (3.0) and Bruno Fernandes (2.9).
As much as Dean Smith would probably like- actually, let me rephrase that. As much as Dean Smith would definitely like, there is no proverbial magic sponge present. Instead, the claret and blue comrades are simply going to have to ride it through until the dazzler returns to full fitness.
So, with a return date scheduled for the next couple of weeks, what comes ahead before he is back strutting his stuff? And, when he is back strutting his stuff- a celestial sight for each and every Villa supporter- what can their ambitions realistically be?
By the time that Grealish is back on the field, they would have likely played Manchester City and fellow Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion, a somewhat adverse pair of fixtures. After that, six matches lie in the path, which will see them clash swords with Everton, Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Spurs and Chelsea. It is fair to say that the fixture list does not evoke an aura of positivity or confidence, even more so when they already have a fairly sizeable gap to tie.
But we are talking Aston Villa, a team who thrive and relish the underdog status. Last year, the Villains pulled off a dramatic great escape, having plugged the gap late on to retain their Premier League status in spite of the multitude of doubters.
That factor of proving the doubters wrong goes hand in hand here as, in all honesty, the vast majority will no longer be tipping Villa for European qualification for the first time the 2009-10 season.
Admittedly, the odds do not stack up in their favour, but with the sorcery of Jack Grealish, they have a player who can weave a wand like few others throughout the Premier League. If- and that is a big if- their star man comes back in full throttle, their desires may not yet be out of reach.