Showstopper Grealish proves his credentials as potential Man Utd protagonist


If Manchester United’s 2-2 draw with Aston Villa on Sunday highlighted one of their biggest concerns, the contest also put a spotlight on a potential fix in the form of the visitors’ star man.

So plentiful are their issues that one could argue the starting XI against Villa requires as many as six upgrades to bring them even close to Liverpool’s standard.

But one area in which they are woefully short is midfield. Paul Pogba aside, not one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s current options would get near the line-up of Jurgen Klopp’s Reds or Manchester City and, given his form this year, it would be difficult even to make a case for the Frenchman.

The emergence of an apparent interest in Leicester City’s James Maddison makes sense and appears to indicate a desire to finally fix deficiencies in the number 10 position.

Some fans might suggest they have had the right man for that role since David Moyes signed Juan Mata in 2014, but for most of his United career he has been unfairly shunted out wide.

Any chance of Mata being a long-term answer has long since vanished, with his ineffective display against Villa doing little to suggest he is up to the task.

The one man on the pitch who did look capable of injecting much-needed impetus and swagger into this United team was Jack Grealish, and it is worth remembering Solskjaer identified Harry Maguire as his primary target on the back of a good display against the Red Devils.

“I more or less made my mind up when we played Leicester last season that if it’s possible to get him [Maguire] we should try, because he’s so composed on the ball and he gives the team another dimension,” Solskjaer said of the centre-back earlier this year.

It is by no means unthinkable to suggest he could say similar of Grealish before the start of next season, as Villa’s attacking midfielder was comfortably the best player on the pitch at Old Trafford.

While United moved forward with their usual predictability, as Andreas Pereira and Mata offered precious little craft, Grealish cruised around the pitch looking entirely at ease and completely convinced in his ability to dictate proceedings.

United certainly appeared aware of the threat posed by Grealish, fouling him four times in the first 24 minutes – Pereira and Fred resorting to cynical tactics to halt him.

Although frustration could be seen in Grealish’s reaction each time, that soon disappeared once he was back on the ball, carrying Villa forward with purpose and drive.

While his dribbling ability is notable, Grealish also has the awareness to know when to offload quickly and when to hold on to possession.

His potential has never been a secret, but disciplinary issues blighted the early years of Grealish’s career. Those problems are very much a thing of the past and a commanding performance at United – even if this a weak Red Devils side – is a solid indicator of a new-found maturity.

Grealish’s goal, the opener, was a fine reminder of his technical excellence. Stepping inside Pereira to make space for himself, the Villa star curled an unstoppable effort into the top-right corner from a difficult angle.

He was then the instigator with a driving run up the left flank and pass into the danger zone when Trezeguet thought he had put Villa two up, only for VAR to rule it out for offside.

While detractors might point out Grealish only created one legitimate opportunity, it is hard to deny his influence in attack. After all, his 23 passes in the opposition half was the most among Villa players, and he completed 88.6 per cent of all passes and delivered six crosses.

He also showcased fine off-the-ball movement in the second half – an inability to get enough contact on the ball essentially denying him a second goal, but by no means did it ruin a solid outing.

Ask any United fan whether they would rather see Grealish or Pereira strutting about in their midfield, the replies would be unanimous and the Brazilian’s cross for Tom Heaton’s own goal would not be referenced.

Maddison may remain the ideal signing for United, but Villan Grealish proved he has what it takes to become a protagonist in the Theatre of Dreams.