Jack Grealish — Sauce on the side or all over?

The foundation of a team, the spine, is the bed rock of any team. A strong outfit throughout this area has been the makings of many a great team down the years. Building such, as always, is the most difficult. All the more difficult is the fact that when you are building, or rebuilding, how are you to know which peripheral option would fit best alongside the spine? Is it best to wait once that is set in stone, risking missing out on the perfect piece to fit in and around or take the leap, in the faith that the team is not misshapen once all these players are pulled together as one?

This is perhaps the biggest issue brought up whenever Man Utd’s pursuit of Aston Villa’s talismanic Jack Grealish is being discussed – how could the club trail such a player when there are far more pressing matters, in the shape of a right winger, a commanding DM and place to go alongside the captain, Harry Maguire? Grealish is versatile but in areas and roles that seem to be well stocked in this Man Utd team that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is in the middle of remodelling. Rashford has made the left wing berth his own for sure; Bruno looks to be the first choice as a 10; a place next to Fred would be quite out of place for the yet English international and even a slight change of shape, with the midfield triangle inverted, the return of Paul Pogba causes even more of a headache. Alas, outside the Sancho saga, these shouts coming from the media are the strongest for Grealish so what squad role would he actually fulfil, pending potential outgoings, and are his attributes actually needed by United?

The Man

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On a superficial level look at the player, Grealish is a bit of a throwback. As the game trundles towards ultra efficiency and claustrophobic structure, the way in which Grealish plays is such that exists outside of what we have become accustomed to seeing in this day and age. Gliding across the pitch, it is hard for him not to stand out with the prominent quiff, lowered socks that don’t cover his shins totally and his slim physique. The aesthetic does not over-represent the qualities he brings to the team, in terms of his ball retention, carrying and ability to pick out a pass. Nor is his wearing of Aston Villa’s captain’s armband an addition to this aesthetic. The team gravitates towards him in the offensive phase, covers for him defensively due to the creative freedom given to him as his roams across the pitch to pick up the dangerous pockets. This is not to take away from his defensive capabilities, as he is not one to shirk the combative side of the game nor leg work needed in a team close to the foot of the Premier League table.

Grealish’s advanced stats for the season

Statistically, Grealish’s strengths lie in build up & final third creativity and are clear to see. His xGBuildup per 90 (0.32) is particularly interesting in that it is one of the highest in the Premier League, for teams outside of the top 6. It assigns the xG of the shot taken in each possession chain that the player is involved in. It has shown the value of players who are excellent at progressing the ball into more dangerous areas so Grealish’s favourable rating in this regard is a good sign. In build up, progressions can come from passing or dribbling and the latter is something that Grealish is particularly renowned for. Statistics courtesy of FBRef, in total progressive distance achieved in the league, only Wilfried Zaha is able to top the Aston Villa man. What makes that even more impressive is that in data collated by Saturday on Couch, he was targeted at a rate considerably above what one would expect a Villa player would be and just to add on top, the progression he gained per ball loss was, again, positively anomalous. One issue with his carrying is the fact that he doesn’t take the ball past many players as much as his stats suggest he would. It could be that he is taking the ball up the pitch under less pressure, galloping into space as Villa spring their counters on teams. With the Red Devils, particularly in games at Old Trafford, the opposition sitting deep will deny the Birmingham born man space and he would have to get used to weaving through deep blocks. His penchant to be overindulgent with the ball, not passing it on quickly, will also need to subside, something Paul Pogba had to learn, and still is.

Middle or the side?

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Such need to constantly touch the ball does help confirm why Grealish prefers “playing as an 8”, despite Dean Smith having him play as a left winger for the majority of the season. The Villa manager praises the versatility, claiming he could play a number of positions, even as part of a two man midfield. The problem that faces Grealish is the fact that in terms of offensive central midfielders, United’s team is pretty well stacked. The presence of Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard will be less of a concern, rather Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are the two obstacles to a regular role in the centre of the park. Between Fernandes and Pogba, they provide the advantages of Grealish, whilst having the more athletic attributes of a modern game’s midfielder. So would a place on either wing be where he is situated if this move were to materialise? Well, Marcus Rashford has more or less tied down the left wing position for the foreseeable future and while the right is up for the grabs, the noises of Jadon Sancho being as loud as they are make that just as unlikely for a Grealish starting place. Even then, Solskjaer prefers directness and take on ability from his wingers while Grealish has been able to combine well with Matt Targett down Villa’s left with the bombing overlaps of the left back. Luke Shaw or Aaron Wan Bissaka are not one to continually provide the outside option and it would leave teams being able to double up on Grealish, limiting his space.

Main man to side man?

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So is it really possible that £50/60m will be spent on a player that would be a rotational and/or plan B option for our starting XI? It would be a lot to spend on a player that does not add a completely different dimension. But that does not have to be the purpose of every signing. When there is a player like Grealish, who has the ability to play across the pitch and fulfil so many different roles, it may be worth the risk. An acquisition from the closest rivals at the Etihad elucidates this further, spending £43m on Bernardo Silva to take him from Monaco 3 years ago. Right wing mostly but he has played as a CM, in a two and three, left winger and false 9 for Pep Guardiola. His first season didn’t see him constantly playing games, coming in for injuries, others getting a rest or to play a specific role. His ability to retain the ball with mesmerising close control was another option to the searing pace of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane or mazy dribbling of Riyad Mahrez. In games where control through possession is important, Silva has been used to add to that and Grealish could be used in much the same way. 

Solskjaer’s usage is the crux of what makes Grealish a necessity for United because eventually, if we are to get back to the level required, his importance in the squad would be recognised. Grealish would provide a prominent bump in our technical security. Our ability to retain the ball and thus press teams in their own camps has been significantly lacking in recent years. Pogba and Bruno can unlock a door but they do so by risking loss of possession. While Grealish does take a lot of touches, he gets dispossessed less than someone who touches the ball a lot should do. If there is something that all the better teams have in common, press resistance in the players is one of them.

Squad building isn’t always linear, checking off the list in terms of biggest needs. Looking at Liverpool’s evolution in how they got themselves from the dire straits to champions elect, the summer of 2016/17 is particularly interesting. Klopp stuck with Milner at LB for a year and drafted in a stop gaps of Klavan and Matip at CB while he spent money on a forward and midfielder, Mane and Wijnaldum, because even though the positions at the back were more urgent, it did not mean other less pressing issues could not be sorted in the mean time. The right personnel was not available at the time to fix those problems so waiting was a better option. The spine of the team​ seems halfway built. Bruno and Maguire are solidified choices. The rest is up in the air but if this truly is a long term project under headed by our once Norwegian super-sub then the right options for those will present themselves when ready. For now, when someone like Grealish presents themselves, with all the ability, mentality fortified by leadership and overcoming off the pitch, until recently, the opportunity is to be taken. Who knows, he might just be the foundation of the winning spine in the future.

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