Is Jack Grealish the Answer to Villa’s Balance Problem?


Last season Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti spoke candidly about the need to find the right ‘balance’ between defence and attack, “It was a problem of balance. There was a lot of space between our defence and midfield” Ancelotti mused.

The veteran Italian boss had won four Champions League titles with Milan (two as a player and two as manager), but he struggled to find the right formula in his early days at the Santiago Bernabeu. That was, of course, until Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso returned from injury which gave Madrid the balance they needed.

Paul Lambert’s ‘balance’ problem, in contrast to Ancelotti, is that his team are struggling to create enough chances despite keeping three clean sheets this season. The issue of creativity is a problem that has persisted from last year where Villa averaged two shots on target per game. This season Villa are statistically worse with seven shots on target from the opening five games.

Focus has mainly been drawn to the team’s defensive record after positive displays against Stoke, Newcastle and Liverpool, but having failed to score against Newcastle and Arsenal, the Villa manager must now look for improvement in the attacking third.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Villa are missing Christian Benteke who is due to return from injury imminently, but the Villa manager must find a way for his team to become more effective as an attacking unit.

Villa’s Problem

Villa’s strikers Gabby Agbonlahor (18 touches of the ball) and Weimann (11 touches of the ball) could not get into the game against Arsenal with Sanchez, Richardson and Weimann guilty of carelessness in possession and a lack of composure.

Much was made of the fact that Agbonlahor only completed three of his five passes, but in his defence, he didn’t receive much support from the five players in midfield. Only Delph appeared willing to link play by breaking through the lines and exchanging passes with the strikers when the game was still 0 – 0.

Of the six chances Aston Villa created, four were from set-pieces and two were from open play. Villa have to create more chances as a team and not rely on set-piece deliveries.

Time for Grealish to Step Up?

The second issue that Lambert faces is that he simply must find a way to include Jack Grealish in the starting line-up.

The 19-year-old played within himself in the second half against Arsenal (following team orders to keep the score down) but he showed enough flashes of ability, composure and technique to demonstrate that he should have a more permanent place in the team from now on.



Grealish completed all of his 14 passes and disrupted Arsenal’s flow by holding onto the ball and attracting fouls from Callum Chambers.

Grealish was an oasis of calm in contrast to the more frantic Kieran Richardson who completed only 53% of his 17 passes. Richardson also seemed to lack composure as six of his attempted forward passes failed to find a teammate which helped Arsenal dominate possession.

The experienced Colombian international Carlos Sanchez also fluffed his lines on a number of occasions, but in fairness to him he has not had much of a pre-season and looked short of match sharpness.

Ashley Westwood (the man Sanchez replaced at the last-minute) has been a calming influence in the middle of the pitch with an ability to slow down play which was missing on Saturday, after he was the most important victim of the virus that plagued the Villa squad.

The Benteke Void

One of Villa’s problems, when Benteke has been absent from the team, is that the forwards have failed to keep possession of the ball or make intelligent decisions. Villa are missing a player in the final third of the pitch who has the close control and composure to find the right pass and maintain possession. Jack Grealish possesses these attributes and in my opinion he should be handed the number ten role by Paul Lambert.

Grealish Gifts

Grealish’s ability to play in a central position is not in doubt. The youngster regularly ghosts in between the lines, evades tackles and uses his balance and body position to protect the ball. Grealish has developed increasingly impressive combination play with his teammates and never looks rushed on the ball.

In addition, the 19-year-old midfielder has a picture of the play around him and shows intelligence beyond his years in the attacking third. Retiring Villa academy director Bryan Jones told The Guardian last week,

“He has the gift, something most players just haven’t got: awareness, he sees passes other players don’t see.”

Grealish’s ability as a creative player could be seen in his performances for Notts County last season and throughout pre-season for Aston Villa. In a match against Colchester the leggy winger dribbled from within his own half, beat Tom Eastman (twice), dragged the ball back and executed a delicious pausa before playing a through ball to Gary Liddle who scored. Against Port Vale, Grealish made two assists for Jamal Campbell-Ryce following equally impressive dribbles.

For the first assist, Grealish showed that he can penetrate defences and create a numerical advantage in the box. The youngster beat two defenders with close control, a pivot and a feint which caused the Port Vale defender to go to ground. Grealish was then able to execute a simple pass to the unmarked Campbell-Ryce who scored. Grealish further disrupted Port Vale’s defensive line for his second assist as Vale defenders didn’t know whether to commit to a challenge or maintain shape as the youngster drifted in between lines. Grealish’s ability to attract defenders opened up space for Campbell-Ryce to arrive late in the box and collect the winger’s perfectly waited pass which he neatly slotted home.

A Grealish Formation

The 19-year-old winger, through a sequence of attacking moves, shows that he can add much-needed penetration, intelligence and ‘la pausa’ to Villa’s attacking play. However, there is a trade off when playing a youngster in the team and sufficient protection will be needed as Grealish adapts to the pace and intensity of the Premier League. It is likely therefore that Lambert would need to adapt his formation to get the best from the talented youngster.


jack grealish formation

In the next fixture Villa are playing Chelsea and Lambert would be forgiven for taking a cautious approach. Villa must deny Chelsea space to play through the middle and prevent Hazard and Oscar from cutting inside and having a shot.

Grealish could operate as a 10 behind Agbonlahor with the protection of a three of Westwood, Delph and Cleverley in a 3-5-1-1 formation. The threat of Grealish’s invention and Agbonlahor’s pace on the break would pose Mourinho’s Chelsea some interesting questions. The combination of Grealish and Agbonlahor would be less predictable than Weimann and Agbonlahor who are similar players in many ways.

Grealish’s former teammate, the pacy Jamal Campbell-Ryce, enjoyed the ball to be played inside the full back to sprint onto, similarly to both Weimann and Agbonlahor. Grealish’s second assist for Campbell-Ryce versus Port Vale demonstrates that he is capable of utlising the pace of his teammates in an intelligent way to make the team more effective.

The youngster’s clever decision making should benefit the likes of Weimann and Agbonlahor, whilst his ability to hold up play and maintain possession could assist Villa’s midfield runners, Delph and Cleverley.

Paul Lambert’s quest for ‘balance’ therefore should look no further than the beautifully balanced Jack Grealish.


‘La Pausa’

The concept of ‘la pausa’ which Grealish has in his locker is the moment when the top players seem to put others around them on hold while they pick their next pass – experts include David Silva and Juan Mata. It’s an ability to put the brakes on, to feint and bluff the opposing player that’s trying to tackle you, who will then be committed and taken out of play.

Follow Shelley on Twitter – @shelly_ozzy



  1. jack grealish has signed a four year contract, and played for the U21 on Tuesday alongside Darren Bent,the team also included Bacuna and Shay Given. this seem to indicate that the four of them are being kept in reserve in a real sense, it gives them game time which only Bent got against QPR.

    This is a sensible way to proceed. Grealish has not been called up by the Irish full squad, O’Neill decided against this for the full international but he may play him for a friendly, which does not commit him to the Irish cause. The claim that he plays for Ireland but not for Villa is misplaced.

    Both the republic and Villa are playing him at U21 level. Which is the right thing to do until Villa start to win again. Putting pressure on him to be the answer to the goal drought would be disasterous. 19 year olds don’t need the pressure. How many people on this site can remember Alun Evans, Britain’s first £100k teenage transfer? He came to us from Liverpool where SHANKLY had spent the moneyand sank without trace

    Be careful what you wish for.

    trevor fisher.

  2. The suggestion that Grealish will be a top player by the time he is 21 has it’s merits . However unless he gets game time he will go the way of many of the Villa youth who have had their potential stiffled by rotting in the Reserves or getting thrown in at the deep end and rejected when they fail to rescue their senior team mates bacon aka MON .
    Lambert has the right idea in slowly introducing him . But his hands are partly tied as ideally Grealish needs to be introduced into a winning team , and not expected to rescue a failing team
    Hopefully the team will be back to winning ways in the foreseable future and the youngster can get more playing time

  3. Yes, he should be starting, we desperately need someone who can create. We shouldnt play 5 at the back though, once Vlaar is fit, the back 4 is fine. Grealish could play out wide or even in the number 10 role. With him and Benteke in the team, the goals will come.

  4. Grealish should be tied to a contract and then loaned out to a championship side. Playing him in the PRemiership will ruin him unless his middle name is Pele. Look at Pele at 17 and you will see the difference between a grown man and a developing teenager.

    The Notts County manager said when he was on loan he would be a great player…. when he was 21.

    Force him and ruin him. He is two years away from being the real deal

    Trevor Fisher

  5. Against bigger teams like arsenal last weekend i think we should play a 4 5 1. With grealish and zog playing the flanks and also able to cut in . When w. Play with the 3 at the back we tend start deep and get deeper as the game goes on which invites the opposition onto us . Big flaw to have too many defensive players!!

  6. He’ll be the answer to someone else’s problem at the end of the season if we don’t tie him to a new deal. Good article, unfortunately also a shop window for a canny manager.

  7. John mills. What a ridiculous comment, so his shoe laces came undone. Have you seen the kid play more than once??
    You may here a better comment in the next few years like … other villa players are not fit to lace his boots.

    A player with so much yes only potential but if you make a comment make it worth while.

  8. I’d feel more inclined to play Grealish if we could find someone who could tie his laces up for him – on the evidence of the Arsenal match this is a major challenge for the player. I have a lot of time for him but while his choice of no shin guards may have valid basis ( ??? ) the fact that his shoelaces came undone at least three times hints at sloppiness of a high order.

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