How much will Aston Villa miss Jack Grealish?
After joining Manchester City for a record fee, Aston Villa are now having to face existence without captain and local lad Jack Grealish. Raph Boyd explores how the Birmingham side will move on from such an impactful loss.
Perhaps you may have missed it, but on the 5th of August, Jack Grealish joined Manchester City for £100 million and, in doing so, became the most expensive Englishman of all time. It’s a record that he took from his international teammate Harry Maguire and that, depending on how the final weeks of what has been a staggering transfer window play out, he could lose to Harry Kane. Whether or not you agree with the fee paid for him, very few people seem to doubt that the 25-year-old will do great things for Pep Guardiola’s Blues. What doesn’t seem to be discussed as much though is what now happens to the side he left. Grealish, born in Birmingham and raised in Solihull, had been with Villa for most of his life, with many fans (as well as Grealish himself) saying that they could see him one day retiring there. Now that such ideas have proven immaterial, the question remains; just how much will Aston Villa miss Jack Grealish?
Joining the club at the age of six, Jack Grealish made his debut for Villa at the age of 18, playing in a 4-0 defeat to the club that would later break the English transfer record for him, Manchester City. In the subsequent two seasons, Grealish played just under 50 games for Villa in all competitions, even scoring his first goal for them against Leicester – unfortunately though, he was unable to protect his side from relegation at the end of the 2015/16 season. At this junction in his career, it wasn’t clear which way Grealish, a highly regarded prospect, world turn. On one hand, his ability was universally recognised; on the other, he still wasn’t performing to his full potential and, at the age of 21, had already incurred the wrath of two managers (Tim Sherwood and Remi Garde) for his poor behaviour off the field.
It was, in many ways, the three years that he spent with Villa in the Championship that were a godsend for Grealish. He starred in a Villa side that, following a mid-table finish and a playoff final defeat, clinched promotion back into the Premier League, recording a combined total of 30 goals and assists in 89 league games. So impressive was Grealish, that he was made first team captain during the 2018/19 campaign at the age of just 23.
To put it simply, since the 2016/17 season, Grealish has only gotten better and better for Villa, to the point that, on paper, he seems irreplaceable. Over his five seasons, he made 82 goal contributions in 171 appearances, equating to a goal or assist just under once every two games. Last season, he managed a combined total of 19 goals and assists in 27 games, roughly a superb 0.7 G/A per game. His contributions were such that he either scored or assisted around a third of Villa’s 62 goals during the campaign, a contribution only marginally exceeded by teammate Ollie Watkins, who provided two more G/A, but in 13 more games. On top of this, he was in the 99th percentile amongst attacking midfielders last season for shot creating actions, progressive passes, progressive carries and fouls drawn. Long story short, the sheer amount of positive numbers Grealish brought to the club are nearly impossible to find in one player.
That doesn’t mean that Villa haven’t tried, though. Upon the announcement that he had left for the North West, Villa wasted no time in redistributing his number 10 jersey to Emiliano Buendía, signed earlier this summer from Norwich and originally given the number 20. That number 20 was instead given to Danny Ings, signed the same day as Grealish’s departure, from Southampton. Along with Buendía and Ings, Villa also brought in Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen. Assuming Villa begin the season without any more incomings, these three, as well as the aforementioned Watkins, are the most likely to be able to fill the void left by Grealish’s departure.
In this regard, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that bar Bailey, they have all actually achieved a higher G/A total over the past two seasons than Grealish, and all four seem to have the ability to contribute good numbers to Villa’s attack. The bad news is that Buendía’s and Watkins’ numbers were boosted significantly by successful seasons in the Championship, and that Grealish’s total was hindered heavily by an injury stricken 2020/21 season. Missing more than half of Villa’s games on the sidelines, on average, his G/A-per-game numbers are considerably better than any of those of his replacements.
Whilst Ings has been consistently great when given first team football and Watkins had a very respectable debut season in the first division, the two may see their game time suffer from the other’s presence in the team, with manager Dean Smith usually preferring to play a lone striker rather than a duo. On top of that, Bailey, signed from the German Bundesliga, may take time to adapt to English football and Buendía, who was outstanding last season in the Championship for Norwich, will need to improve his numbers from his last time he played in the Premier League, when he managed only one goal and eight assists.
No matter how upset Villa fans may be that they will no longer see Grealish in a Villa shirt, the fee received is certainly something to cheer them up. £100 million is not a small amount of money – in fact, it is the sixth largest amount of money a club has ever received for a single player and could prove to be incredibly useful to a club trying to assemble a top-class squad of players. The problem is that, as strange as it sounds, £100 million doesn’t always go as far as it should. When it comes to what not to do, two good examples can be provided by Premier League clubs in the last decade.
In 2017, after receiving £75 million from Manchester United for Romelu Lukaku, Everton added to their squad by spending the money, and a bit more, on three players: £40 million on Gylfi Sigurðsson, £27.5 million on Cenk Tosun and £27.5 million on Theo Walcott. Four seasons later, Walcott has left club for free having only scored 11 goals, Cenk Tosun finds himself on the team’s fringes with a similarly unimpressive scoring record and Sigurðsson, the most successful of the three, has widely been seen as flop due to his high price tag and lack of resale value.
Four seasons before this, Tottenham found themselves in a similar position, as the inevitable sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for a record £85.3 million left the club pre-emptively spending their fortune on seven acquisitions. Of the roughly £110 million spent, only the £11.5 million paid for Christian Eriksen ended up being seen as a genuinely good investment, with the remaining £95 million now largely judged as a waste of valuable resources.
Recently, Villa’s transfer business is mixed. In the past three seasons, Villa have spent around a quarter of a billion pounds on incomings. Some, like the signings of Emiliano Martinez, Matty Cash, Morgan Sanson, Douglas Luiz and Tyrone Mings for a combined £80 million is fine business and suggests that they certainly have an eye for good deals. Other transactions, such as paying a total of around £65 million for players like Mbwana Samatta, Marvelous Nakamba, Tom Heaton, Björn Engels, Jota and Wesley, none of whom have had an impact on the first team, also shows that their business is far from perfect and that, maybe, the Grealish millions may not be spent as wisely as possible. Villa’s owners have pumped around half a billion pounds into the club over the past decade, more than any other club aside from Manchester City and Chelsea, but it’s more that such investment could slow down in the near future, making the fortune received from the sale of an academy player even more important.
How much Jack Grealish will be missed by Aston Villa can’t be summed up by just numbers. How much he provided to the team, how his replacements may fair or how his transfer fee may be used is all inconsequential, when you fail to consider the human element of the situation. Grealish is a lifelong Villa fan, his great grandfather played for them, and he had been at the club since he was six years old. His lows were well documented, but they seemed to fit perfectly with a difficult period in Villa’s history. His ascendancy too, from troubled youngster to England starter, coincided with Villa’s return to the top, and it’s easy to see why Villa fans may begrudge any further success he enjoys without them, feeling that without their talisman, they may regress to how they fared before he became a household name.
Whether Grealish has done the right thing is complicated for many fans, based on wildly different expectations. Some feel there is never a reason to leave the team you love, whilst others fully support his choice. For the majority, it isn’t the leaving that’s the problem, it’s leaving whilst Villa were on the rise. The hard truth to swallow for these fans is that, barring unexpected and incredibly unlikely increases in their immediate quality, reaching the level in the league that they dream of typically takes years. It took Manchester City four seasons, each of which saw the club spend around £100 million or more on players, before they finally lifted the title. Leicester, against all odds, won the title in the 2016/17, but have failed to finish within the top four in any of the subsequent five seasons. In this sense, it’s not entirely fair to expect Grealish, on the cusp of turning 26, to spend the prime years of his career below the level he could play at.
Daniel Rolinson of the Claret and Blue podcast puts it best: “You’re asking Jack Grealish to build Villa to be a good Premier League competing side for after his career’s over. You want this to be the foundations of Villa being brilliant for the next decade and Jack Grealish won’t be a part of it then.”
Whether they care to admit it or not, Grealish will certainly be missed at Villa Park. His position may be filled, his shirt number reassigned, and his armband given to one of his former teammates, but his legacy at the club, and regrets of how much greater it could have been, will remain. He was already their captain, one of their most capped players of the Premier League era and, arguably, one of the most gifted players the club has ever had, but he could have been more. He could have become a legend, had a statue outside the stadium, maybe even a stand named after him within it. Instead, he has chosen to pursue honours, a completely respectable decision, but one which won’t make the fact that he is leaving sting less for his fans. Villa are far from finished, they have a gradually improving squad and the departure of one man won’t take them from fighting for European places to relegation battles. Still, even the most ardent Jack Grealish admirer-turned-hater will know in their heart that, as much as Villa can go on to achieve great things, they’d have much rather done so with the man who bled claret and blue.