Considering they have just put in their best performance in a big game, it may not be the most opportune time to say this. I have not been impressed by Aston Villa this season. Many observers will disagree. The overriding narrative of their season has been one of playing good football without getting just rewards. Now, I can’t speak for others, but just because a team plays vertically doesn’t necessarily mean they are playing well. Some examples to illustrate my point further.
Earlier in the season Villa were 2-1 up against ten men at the Emirates. Remember, this was Unai Emery’s Arsenal. The Villains still ended up losing 3-2. It wasn’t a hard luck story. Arsenal actually dominated despite their numerical disadvantage and deserved the comeback win. A few rounds later, Dean Smith’s men were 1-0 up against Liverpool at Villa Park. Despite having the lead, it was alarming how many counterattacking moves the Reds were able to orchestrate, and while it is easy to say with hindsight, it really wasn’t a surprise that the table-toppers left with a late win.
Both cases were presented as heartbreak, but to my eyes both results were just and reflect a season-long pattern of Villa not really understanding the flow of the game. They have been tactically poor, not really understanding how to protect leads while also appearing a tad clueless when chasing games. Their attack hasn’t been good enough and their defence has shown varying levels of naïveté.
It is in attacking midfield that they have shone brightest and it is here that I bring in the nuance. Yes, I am not impressed with Villa, but I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Jack Grealish. To my mind, he has been one of the best midfielders to watch in England this season. I now get why Spurs were so interested in signing him during the summer they signed nobody. I now get why there was so much hype about this player and I can totally see what pundits were saying about him being the best player in the Championship, without having watched a lot of that division myself.
It’s no surprise that he is the Villains leading goal scorer, assister and passer this season. Grealish is a technical footballer’s dream. He has a varied passing range allied with easy dribbling and an excellent shot. He sees passes that nobody sees and is always an option for his teammates because he can be found in good positions, perennially drifting into open spaces. On a recent episode of the Totally Football Show, Michael Cox said he is an old-school midfielder who just knows how to run things. It is probably the reason that makes him such a joy to watch. Pass, move, pass, create, pass, shoot. All the while looking elegant and classy on the ball.
Then there’s the leadership. He is a boyhood Aston Villa fan. His passion for his team clearly shows in his game. His inspirational qualities are easy to see, without being an overtly chest-thumping heart-on-sleeve captain in the classic British sense. To Grealish, leading the team means being accountable. Need a moment of magic, Grealish is your man. Under pressure, give the ball to Grealish. He could have left when they were relegated from the Premier League. Yet he stayed and led them back to the top division. The actions speak louder than the words and that’s refreshing.
Make no mistake, Aston Villa are mired in an increasingly complex relegation battle. Arguably, a team — maybe even two — could be relegated this season without necessarily deserving it. As of one the big historical clubs in England, the pressure is even greater on Villa to survive. There is no question about who is the most integral protagonist at Villa Park. In truth, when people say Aston Villa have been good to watch, what they are really seeing, is that Jack Grealish has made them look good. Villa’s fate is inextricably linked with that of their captain’s.