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20th Oct 2019

Jack Grealish brilliance helps Aston Villa find their feet and dispel old perceptions

Simon Lloyd

After starting the season with an unwanted record, Jack Grealish continues to blossom in Aston Villa’s Premier League return

For the first time since early May 2015, Aston Villa have back-to-back Premier League wins.

Victory over ten-men Brighton on Saturday followed their 5-1 dismantling of Norwich before the international break, and saw Dean Smith’s side climb to eleventh in the table – further evidence that they are steadily finding their feet back in the top flight after a three-year absence.

The same can also be said of Jack Grealish, whose contributions to both of these wins have been telling.

Grealish had scored his first Premier League goal in over four years at Carrow Road two weeks ago. He was involved in the build-up for two more of Villa’s goals. If that performance hadn’t been enough to dispel any lingering doubts as to whether he belonged on this stage, his display against Brighton surely did.

A poorly defended free-kick had allowed Adam Webster to head the visitors in front after 20 minutes, but the sending off of Aaron Mooy soon after proved pivotal.

The Australian had been booked moments earlier for preventing Villa from taking a free-kick. Grealish, cutting inside from the right as he exchanged passes with John McGinn, had enticed him into a challenge yards from the Brighton box. As Mooy committed, Grealish nudged the ball away a fraction of a second before contact. The referee’s decision to show him a second yellow card was a straightforward one.

From there, Grealish’s influence grew. Had VAR not intervened, Villa would have had an equaliser sooner than they did when he won a loose ball in Brighton’s area before McGinn teed up Conor Hourihane.

The home side eventually levelled in first-half stoppage time. Grealish, again picking up possession on the right wing, had ghosted infield before offloading a pass to Wesley on the edge of the area. As the ball was played back out to right side, he drifted undetected  towards the edge of  the six-yard box, where he bundled home Frederic Guilbert’s deflected cross. It was his first Premier League goal at Villa Park.

Most of Grealish’s touches in the second half came on the opposite wing. He continued to work diligently to help his team defensively while probing at Brighton’s tiring defence with his marauding runs and clever passing. And finally, just as it looked that Brighton might hold out, that the game might fizzle out into a draw, his persistence paid off.

In the fourth minute of stoppage time Grealish was found on the left wing. Approaching the corner of the Brighton area, he was met by two defenders. He dropped a shoulder, quickly shifted the ball on to his right foot and, as both defenders took the bait, slipped a pass between them to Matt Targett, who drilled the winner into the far corner. The finish was emphatic; the way in which Grealish engineered the chance was even better. At such a late stage in the game, his cool-headedness, poise and vision had picked the lock, coaxing the defenders in and releasing the ball only when the moment was precisely right.

After beginning the season by becoming the first player in Premier League history to lose 20 consecutive games – a legacy of Villa’s wretched 2015/16 season – the perception of Grealish is starting to change as displays like this begin to stack up. Undoubtedly gifted, he more than played his part in Villa’s promotion push last season. There were, however, questions as to whether he had enough about him to influence games on his return to the top tier of English football. With every passing week, he answers those questions more forcefully, as is borne out by the statistics. In total he created six opportunities in the game against Brighton, taking his tally for the season to 25. Only Kevin De Bruyne (29) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (26) – players whose clubs are expected to be embroiled in a title race for the remainder of the campaign  – have posted better figures.

Gareth Southgate was at Villa Park to witness his performance first-hand on Saturday. On this evidence, it’s difficult to envisage a situation where Grealish isn’t offered the chance to make his senior debut for England in November’s international break. Competition for places may be fierce in Southgate’s squad these days, but as Grealish continues to establish himself as one of the most influential playmakers in the Premier League, overlooking him may prove an impossible task.