If you were to look through any of the gossip columns over the past couple of years it would not take too long to see the words Manchester United and Jack Grealish in the same sentence.
Were we to take such speculation as gospel truth then England playmaker Grealish has been on the radar of Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pretty much ever since he took the top job at Old Trafford.
Grealish only penned a new five-year deal at boyhood club Aston Villa back in September but, even with the ink barely dry, his name continues to be linked with the Premier League’s elite clubs.
A new year it may be but old rumours are likely to persist. With Villa visiting United for their first game of 2021, we take a look at what Grealish could offer to the 20-time champions of England, with the help of Opta data.
405 – Jack Grealish made the most progressive carries of any player in the Premier League in 2020, while his tally of 405 was more than twice as many as any other Aston Villa player. Effervescent. #OptaReview2020 pic.twitter.com/tBXXygiic7
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 31, 2020
With Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba among the ranks there is no creativity void at United.
Having said that, Grealish’s ability to provide opportunities for his team-mates ranks with the best in the division – this term quite literally.
In 2020-21, Grealish has created 51 chances in the Premier League (only Hakan Calhanoglu of Milan with 53 has more in Europe’s top five league). That is four more than Fernandes, who is second in England’s top flight, while Kevin De Bruyne has created 42 for a Manchester City side not scoring with the regularity they once did under Pep Guardiola.
Those chances have returned six assists, only one fewer than both Fernandes and De Bruyne, while Tottenham striker Harry Kane leads the way on 10.
Grealish is outperforming his expected assists from open play chances (3.67 expected, five in total), as is Fernandes (3.48). His overall expected assists of 4.26 is also the highest in the league (he of course has six in total), with Fernandes just behind on 4.05.
A look back to the start of last season shows Grealish has provided 142 chances in the Premier League, second only to De Bruyne on 178. Since his top-flight debut in February, Fernandes has created 77 – in the same timespan Grealish has 84 and De Bruyne 93.
Aside from Fernandes, whose job it is in fairness to create, United do not have anyone laying on opportunities at anything like the same level as Grealish. Rashford has 29 since the Portugal international’s first game for the Red Devils, with Luke Shaw the next highest on 27.
Fernandes does beat Grealish in terms of passes (including crosses) into the opposition box this term (127 to 80), but since the start of last season no United player has more than the Villa playmaker’s 297 (the 11th best in that timeframe – although Fernandes outscores him 257 to 172 since his debut).
Essentially, adding Grealish to their wealth of options could mean chances galore for United’s forwards.
UNITED TO BENEFIT FROM FOUL PLAY?
Grealish has a reputation – rightly or wrongly – for, how shall we phrase this delicately … let’s say going down a little too easy.
But whatever your perception of Grealish’s tendency to hit the deck there is no doubt his trickery, deceptive strength, and control of a football inevitably draws more than a few kicks to the shins.
This season alone, Grealish is comfortably the Premier League’s most fouled player on 65, with Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha next on the list with 42.
Going back to the start of last season, the difference is even more vast with the whistle being blown for a foul against Grealish on 232 occasions (Zaha is second, well behind on 162).
For contrast, United’s most-fouled player in 2020-21 is Fernandes (21), with Rashford (20) and Scott McTominay (19) not far behind.
In a league decided by the smallest of margins, Grealish’s propensity to win free-kicks in dangerous areas has potential to be crucial for a side like United, who have lofty ambitions to win the game’s biggest prizes once again.
But don’t let the numbers make you think Grealish isn’t up for a physical battle. The 145 duels he has won in the top flight this term is the most in the league (one more than Tomas Soucek).
Going back to the start of the 2019-20 campaign, Villa’s first since winning promotion, Grealish has come out on top in 434 duels (second only to Adama Traore’s 462).
United’s highest attacking performer for duels won (Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan Bissaka rank highest with 89 and 71 respectively) in the Premier League this season is Rashford on 70, while Fernandes has 63.
Imagine the space the likes of Fernandes and Pogba could have to operate in if opposition players were battling to get the ball back – often fruitlessly – from Grealish…
CARRYING VILLA UP THE TABLE
The simple act of watching Grealish in action is enough to realise how good he is with the ball at his feet, but the numbers to back this up are hugely impressive.
Grealish has 18 instances of carrying the ball leading to a shot, with only Rashford (19) ahead of him. Son Heung-min (16) and Wilfried Zaha (15) also rate highly.
But Grealish has 23 occasions of following a carry with a chance created – 10 more than Leeds United’s Jack Harrison and Traore, who rank joint-second, while Rashford follows alongside Riyad Mahrez with 11.
When combining the two, Grealish has 41 carries leading to either a shot or a chance created – 11 clear of Rashford. Mahrez is next on 23, while Kane, Son and Mohamed Salah are each on 22.
This term Grealish has completed 43 dribbles – the third best in the league behind Traore (53) and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (50). Rashford is United’s best performer in this metric on 34.
Going back to the start of last season, Grealish has completed 116 – behind only Traore (236), Zaha (184) and Allan Saint-Maximin (150).
United are flying high in the Premier League, giving their supporters hopes of a sustained title challenge this season. But there is no denying Grealish possesses traits that could be hugely beneficial to the Red Devils – not least his ball carrying ability, impressive chance creation and the canny knack of winning fouls. Whether United actually make a move for Grealish in January or beyond remains to be seen…