Aston Villa’s star midfielder-creator-finisher Jack Grealish seems to have all the qualities that the elite teams in the Premier League would covet: He’s young, immensely talented, and is, as of this year, an English international. In spite of that, and in spite of the Lions only narrowly escaping relegation last season, none of England’s big clubs have scooped him up this season. Luckily for both Grealish and Villans, the club has built a strong roster around their homegrown star this year, which should present Grealish and the team a solid base to launch an entertaining, and hopefully less stressful, campaign from.
The fresh Premier League season has some surprises throughout the table: Leicester currently sits in first place, Sheffield United has zero points in the relegation zone despite finishing ninth last season, and the Manchester sides are mired in 13th and 14th place. Perhaps the nicest surprise so far has been Villa, which has ridden some shot-making efficiency and stout defending to an undefeated start and fourth place.
Villa is currently undefeated and sitting fourth in the table after two games, making the club one of the more pleasant (extremely) early surprises of the (extremely) young season. It is true that the Lions’ undefeated start has benefitted from some weak competition. Villa has only played Sheffield, in a game that saw Blades center back John Egan sent off in the 12th minute, and last-place Fulham. But the Lions have looked up to the most important task demanded of mid- to lower-table sides that want to avoid the drop, which is to collect points against your peers.
Grealish has been at the heart of the Villa attack that has scored four goals in two games. Though he has no assists and only one goal on the stat sheet, his advanced numbers tell a more accurate story of his importance. Through two matches, Grealish has taken the most shots of any Villa player with six, attempted and completed the most dribbles (seven and five), and created the second-most chances with five. Playing on the left wing, Grealish has found room to use his creativity on the dribble to get into the box, where four of his shots have come, as well as three of his key passes. Just like last season, where he amassed eight goals and six assists (both team highs), Grealish’s passing, ball-carrying, and shooting are driving the Villa attack.
Grealish can’t do it alone, though, and it’s his teammates’ ability to keep the team in matches that will determine Villa’s fate this season. Thankfully, the squad looks up to the task. Villa’s back-line already has two stellar players on it, between Tyrone Mings and new signing Matty Cash. Twenty-two-year-old Ezri Konsa, who moved from Brentford last season after Villa achieved promotion, has slotted in nicely next to Mings, helping the defense keep two clean sheets. Another big defensive addition has been former Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, who has been stellar between the sticks so far.
Further up the field, Villa’s midfield trio of Conor Hourihane, Douglas Luiz, and John McGinn have been solid if unspectacular, which is all the team needs behind the flashier forward line. McGinn especially has been the crucial link-up between the lines of attack, notching two assists and cooking Fulham left back Joe Bryan for breakfast with a high-speed turn.
Up front, Villa’s most expensive transfer of the summer, former Brentford striker Ollie Watkins, has played every minute of both of Villa’s games. Although he hasn’t scored yet, Watkins has provided a solid base for Grealish and Egyptian international Trézéguet to bounce off of. The other big money purchase for Villa, former Lyon winger Bertrand Traoré, hasn’t played much yet, but he should at least provide an additional attacking weapon opposite the team’s star.
This is all to say that, while Villa is highly unlikely to qualify for Europe this season, it should not be a shock should the team play some good-looking soccer en route to a safe mid-table finish. Given where they were on the final day of last season, that would be a welcome improvement. The biggest concern going forward for the team will be the fate of Grealish, who will likely move to one of the big boys next summer should he continue to perform as he has over the last season-plus. Reports say the club has already set an £80 million price tag for Grealish to scare off any suitors. With one more season at a near-elite level, Grealish will make that number look like a bargain in exchange for one of England’s best talents.