Jack Grealish has exploded into Premier League consciousness after a tumultuous, eventful, action-packed four months. The 19-year-old emerged as a key factor in Aston Villa's escaping relegation in 2014-15, becoming a consistent performer for Tim Sherwood's side. He now appears to have the world at his feet as he emerges as one of the country's finest young midfielders.
Aside from making a definitive impact on the pitch, the young playmaker has made waves off it, too. A far-from-tactile holiday to Tenerife brought about the first real controversy of his career. He also has England and the Republic of Ireland fighting over his international future, leading the player to decline a call-up by the latter to face the former in June, per the Irish Times.
Here, we forensically run the rule over the flash young No. 10's game, deciphering strengths, weaknesses and key traits in his makeup. Grealish is the emerging face of the Premier League as he stands on the precipice of a first full season as a starter.
Get to know him, because he's not going away.
1. Poise, Physical
His second Premier League appearance in 2014-15 was a rough one. With Grealish entering the fray against Hull City in the 75th minute, the Tigers proceeded to spot what they perceived to be physical frailness, mowing him down on at least five occasions.
They saw a young, skinny lad with George Best-low shin pads—ripe for a firm challenge. But after being body-slammed over and over, Grealish simply got to his feet and grinned a wide grin each time.
Paul Lambert used the 15-minute expose as an excuse not to play him. "He's a talent, there’s no two ways about it, a big talent," the Scot admitted to the Irish Times in October 2014. "But he’s got an awful long way to go, he’s got to keep his feet on the ground, no matter how well he does throughout his career."
Tim Sherwood, Lambert's successor late in the 2014-15 season, didn't see things the same way. It took him just eight games to try Grealish, and the results were stunning. The 19-year-old was physically ready; big, bulging calves and a low centre of gravity belie his stick-thin figure. He could jostle, jockey and outmanoeuvre grown men.
Why? Because he was one himself.
Grealish boasts the archetypal No. 10 somatotype; his poise and balance are perfect. He twists and turns with ease, and his first step is quick enough to evade challenges. He's 10 times more robust than he looks, winning 2.3 fouls per game, per WhoScored.com, but never staying down.
2. Agility and Pace
Grealish lacks top-end pace and will never be able to play as a purely direct threat. Luckily for him, he's blessed with quick feet and a remarkable array of close-quarter skills, ensuring he can carve out a long career in a more technical, specialist position.
He's not slow, but he's no Jesus Navas. That has likely worked to his advantage during development; it has forced him to work on his technique and balance rather than breeze through the age groups due to an early physical advantage.
Raw agility is a crucial ingredient for any potentially class No. 10. They operate so frequently in such tight spaces, it's vital to be able to create room where there previously was none. His skip-step and ability to play on the half-turn—something we'll address fully a little later on—is right up there with the best.
He can drift wide to play in tight areas of the flank, contort his body to avoid challenges and lift his legs out of the way of heavier foes. Although playing almost exclusively as a No. 10 for Sherwood, he frequented the left side in a more traditional 4-4-2 during the youth tournaments, and he played superbly off that flank in the NextGen final victory over Chelsea in 2013.
The Villa youngster can skip out from under a challenge and nudge the ball around markers, contorting his body to complete outrageous dribbling sequences. He either beats his man or gets fouled, and he rarely loses the ball.
The head on his shoulders is wise, and he doesn't dribble extravagantly to no end. Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo, who spent much of the first two years at Old Trafford focused on placing his marker on his backside before sending a ball into a dangerous area, Grealish dribbles only to find space and releases balls promptly if the option is on.
When moving forward, searching for space, Grealish has the ball on a shoestring tied to his boot. He's 5'9", has a low centre of gravity and tip-toes with the ball to enhance his chance of feigning left or right to duck a tackler. Those tiny steps give him ultimate mobility and choice, even at a split second, to change direction.
When he tip-toes, he keeps the upper half of his body upright, refusing to commit to a direction. It forces the opponent to level out, too, and wait for him to choose. And Grealish's sharp twists will often get the better of even the most combative midfielders. He made just seven Premier League starts in 2015 after being parachuted in late, but he managed to tangle James McCarthy, Gareth Barry, Alex Song, Mark Noble and Sandro into knots.
Arguably Grealish's second-best trait is his passing, though that at times flies under the radar. He's shown range, boldness, accuracy and exceptional consistency in playing the ball so far.
His short-to-medium range is near-flawless, and he posted a remarkable 92.7 completion percentage in the Premier League last season, per WhoScored.com. But that's not what gets you salivating—particularly regarding No. 10s.
Take these two very different passes from the back end of 2014-15 as examples of what he can do.
Against Liverpool, after finding space in a gaping midfield (anchored by Steven Gerrard) in the FA Cup semi-final, he collected a Christian Benteke backheel and tip-toed forward to survey his options in front of goal.
Spotting the on-rushing Fabian Delph from deep, he edges across the box to move Martin Skrtel out of the area where A) Delph wants to hit, and B) Grealish wants to deliver the ball to. His body shape during this move is exactly as we've discussed above: noncommittal and upright. He gives nothing to Skrtel. The Slovak has no clue what he's going to do next and must shadow him, edging across the box.
Grealish's upper torso is still nearly dead straight when he releases the ball into the area Skrtel had occupied two seconds previously, delivering a reverse pass across his own body and into Delph's feet. The shot goes in, it's 2-1 to Villa, and they advance to the FA Cup final.
This second one shows his remarkable range (and power). Late in the day, 1-0 up against West Ham United in a must-win to avoid relegation, he brings the ball out of defence on the counter and meets three Hammers in a tight spot.
He lifts his chin and produces a fantastic 50-yard pass straight into the path of substitute Gabby Agbonlahor, releasing him for a one-vs.-one with the last defender. Unfortunately the striker's final effort is poor.
5. Receiving/playing on half-turn
Perhaps the best word to describe Grealish's style of play is regal. It emits a certain majestic factor, very different to what we see from most players in 2015. Accurate player comparisons can be found in Adam Lallana and David Silva. The former is a particularly strong one thanks to one major common trait.
Grealish has the much-sought-after ability to play on the half-turn, allowing him to crack even the deepest of defensive structures because of the quickness at which he thinks and plays. Some players can play in open space but struggle when the gates are closed, but not this man. He's capable with just a yard to play with in the corner.
This means he can play one-touch passing in tight spaces (always has his head on a swivel, knows where his team-mates are before he receives the ball), or if he's situated between the lines when he receives a pass, he can turn on his first touch and open the pitch out for himself.
There are players who simply have to take a first touch facing the way they play, and Wayne Rooney is one. It's not necessarily a bad trait; it just means they're not cut out to play as a between-the-lines player against deep-set defences. They require too much time on the ball, and by the time they've set themselves to pass, all of the options are marked.
Grealish, like Lallana, has the ability to sit between the lines and make his first touch a killer one. He moves so fast and thinks so quickly that the opposing defences can't close out fast enough to remove his options. It's the stylish opposite to the head-down dribbler (Ross Barkley), and it can be a key factor in defeating stubborn sides—even off the bench.
As it stands, Grealish is yet to register a senior goal for Aston Villa. He took 13 shots in 817 Premier League minutes last season, an average of 0.8 per game, per WhoScored.com. But he never truly threatened any opposing goalkeeper.
It's not that he's unable—his time on loan at Notts County, where he scored five in among the rough-and-tumble League One action, proves he is—but Sherwood's system was hardly conducive to opening opportunities for the No. 10 to shoot.
If it's possible, or even fair, to suggest a 19-year-old with seven league starts to his name has a weakness, goal impact would be it. He muffed his lines several times in front of the adoring Holte End in March and April, perhaps weighed down by the sheer lust to score, and forced only one good save—from Robert Green of Queens Park Rangers during a 3-3 draw.
He's shown composure levels beyond his years in nearly every aspect of his game, but even Sherwood will be suggesting he wants at least five goals out of him this coming campaign.
"I'm hoping for a few more goals, as obviously last season I didn't score," the playmaker told AVTV last week (h/t the Daily Mail). Acceptance is the first step.
Grealish will be pondering his international future this summer. Sherwood encouraged him to put the decision on hold until the end of the 2014-15 campaign, and this story will come to the boil once again soon as the new season ticks closer.
He has the potential to surpass Liverpool's Lallana as a creator and a player, and he's already shown a far higher football IQ than Barkley. There will be a spot in the England team available for him if he reaches his potential, and there will always be a spot open to him in Ireland; he's good enough to improve their starting XI now.
He's an iconic figure in waiting; his playing style and low shinnies are throwbacks to a bygone era, and his hair style has created a super-group of roadies on its own. Villa and Ireland fans know exactly how good he is and how great he could become, and soon Premier League and England fans will, too.
The upcoming season is one when Grealish stands to play every game he's fit for. He has a manager who trusts his attacking instincts and a team eager to play the ball into his path. The fearlessness he shows is the perfect complement to his footballing ability; how far can the combination take him?