“Let’s be honest, if Jack Grealish isn’t playing, Villa are not far off being a relegation team,” said Paul Merson after watching the Villans go down at home to Leicester. Merson then doubled down his stance before their trip to Leeds.
“I think watching last week, it was quite worrying for me, with no Grealish, I looked at that and I thought, ‘if he went at the end of the season, they would be fighting relegation next season’. They looked completely lost. They looked like ‘where’s Jack, we need Jack’.”
Villa didn’t need Grealish – nor Matty Cash, Douglas Luiz, or Ross Barkley – at Elland Road to beat Leeds 1-0 and enhance their European hopes. All it took was a meticulous game-plan, followed to the letter by a side apparently champing at the bit to prove that they are no one-man team.
Jack Grealish has missed 15 games in recent years through injury, how did villa fair in those games?🤔
– 2 Wins ✅
– 6 Draws ⛔️
– 7 Losses ❌
– 15 Scored⚽️
– 24 Conceded⚽️
Without him in 2019/20 Villa had an average expected goals value of 0.49 xG#AVFC
— PGR (@pgr_analytics) February 20, 2021
Dean Smith made little attempt to cover for the absence of Grealish. How could he? Instead, the Villans boss plotted a route to victory that wouldn’t require his captain’s creativity, relying instead on outstanding defensive organisation and a work-ethic to match Leeds’ relentlessness.
Smith instructed his players to go toe-to-toe with Leeds early on pressing them high in their own half, refusing to allow them to settle. The hosts had more of the ball, but after a scare inside the opening 30 seconds when Raphinha failed to reach Patrick Bamford’s delivery, the action was focused predominantly in the Leeds half.
The taking of an early lead undoubtedly focused Villa’s minds even more on the task at hand and the fact it was delivered by Grealish’s replacement Anwar El Ghazi offered a further boost of confidence following a series of games in which it appeared to be slipping.
When Villa retreated, Smith’s rearguard looked more like the Premier League’s second best defence, rather than the unit which conceded sloppy goals to Leicester last week. Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa snuffed out Bamford, while Raphinha’s spark was extinguished by Cash’s replacement, Ahmed El Mohamady, whenever he looked close to catching fire around the box.
Another stand-in, Marvelous Nakamba, had arguably his best game in a Villa shirt. His passing, like that of many of his team-mates, was sometimes loose, giving Oli Watkins little to work with, though work he did. But Nakamba wasn’t chosen for his creativity. His selection was made to nulify the energy of Tyler Roberts and Mateusz Klich. Nakamba’s effervescence made Smith’s brave call the correct one.
— Infogol (@InfogolApp) February 27, 2021
There was an almost unnerving calmness around Villa’s protection of their lead. With a quarter of the game remaining, they appeared completely comfortable while Leeds toiled. For Bielsa’s side, this had all the hallmarks of ‘one of those games’ where it simply doesn’t click. As always, they ran, but were shepherded down dead ends. They passed, but forced sideways. Whatever they chucked at the Villa wall, nothing was sticking.
When Leeds got a sight of Emiliano Martinez, flawless again despite popping pills for a groin injury, their evening was summed up by the mistimed stoop of Raphinha which wasted a free header at the far post as the clock ticked towards 90.
Had the Brazilian bagged, it would have deprived Villa of a deserved victory. One built on a solid foundation, rather than the imagination of Grealish. The latter without the former is a likelier recipe for relegation, and Merson’s fretting about the absence of Grealish doesn’t account for the incredible defensive improvement Smith has inspired this season.