Why Jack Grealish Is the Best Player in the Premier League (So Far)
Through eight games, no one's been better than the Aston Villa star
Black lives matter. This document has an exhaustive list of places you can donate. It’s also got an incredible library of black literature and anti-racist texts. Donate, read, call, and email your representatives. We’re all in this together.
A little over five years ago, for a now-defunct website owned and then terminated by ESPN nearly exactly five years ago, I threw together a collection of Daily Mail headlines written about an England-born, Ireland-eligible teenager. Here’s what a couple of them said:
• June 14: “Jack Grealish pictured sprawled on the road surrounded by packs of cigarettes as Aston Villa star holidays in Tenerife”
• June 15: “Jack Grealish must know he risks throwing it all away… disgraced Aston Villa teenager is allowed a holiday but he has gone too far after ‘drunken’ snaps in Tenerife”
• June 22: “Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish faces fresh questions after being pictured with £1,000 bottle of Ciroc Vodka in Marbella”
• July 14: “Jack Grealish will only fulfill his potential at Aston Villa if he lives ‘like a monk’, insists assistant manager Ray Wilkins”
This was my take on the situation: “Jack Grealish is 19 and could one day be a very good soccer player.” Five years later, the Daily Mail is still on his ass, he hasn’t lived like a monk, his calves look like eight baseball bats glued together, and he hasn’t become a very good soccer player. No, he’s become a great one. In fact, eight weeks into the current season, Grealish has been the best player in the Premier League.
How’d he do it? By doing just about everything.
We’ll start with the obvious one -- and the least important one for this particular player.
The clearest way to provide value on a soccer field is to do the only thing you get any points for: pushing the ball across the goal line using some part of your body other than your hands. Despite playing in a withdrawn, hybrid midfield-winger role where he’s not the team’s first scoring option, Grealish has already scored four goals. None of them came from the penalty spot; only five players in the league -- Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Son Heung-min, Patrick Bamford, Harry Kane, and Grealish’s Villa teammate Ollie Watkins -- have scored more non-penalty goals in 2020-21.
Of course, four goals isn’t that many goals. One unlucky deflection, one great save by a keeper, and suddenly Grealish has only scored twice. Hell, his teammate Tyrone Mings, a center back, has already done that. However, Grealish has also attempted 22 shots so far this season. Only DCL, Kane, Bamford, Mohamed Salah, and Aleksandar Mitrovic have fired off more. Here’s what they look like, sized by the expected-goal value of the chance, via Stats Perform. Goals are in green:
Per FBRef data, Grealish’s 22 shots have produced an xG value of 2.3 -- well below his actual goal tally but still a top-20-in-the-league mark. Given that Grealish’s main role isn’t as a goal-scorer, the more important thing to note here is how he’s been able to maintain a high volume of shots without losing too much quality. While most of the attempts come from the left side of the box, they’re almost all still in the box. Among the top 20 players in the league in shots attempted, only four of them are attempting shots from an average distance closer to the goal than Grealish’s 14.1 yards.
Once you begin to consider everything else he does, that shot profile will start to make your head hurt.
Among all players in Europe’s top five leagues, only Harry Kane’s eight assists surpass Grealish’s five. In fact, Grealish has more assists against Liverpool alone than all but 15 players in Europe -- and two players in England -- have overall.
Kane, Thomas Muller, and Grealish are the only players in the Big Five leagues with at least four non-penalty goals and five assists. Lower that down to 4-and-4, and you still only add in Robert Lewandowski, Kylian Mbappe, and Lille’s Jonathan Bamaba. Pretty good company, huh?
Even more so than goal-scoring, assisting is only partially controlled by the player who ultimately gets the assist. You can play the pass, but then you need your teammate to place the shot on goal and for the opposing keeper or an opposing defender to fail to stop it. The best creative players create lots of chances that are only occasionally turned into assists, and well, only Salah and Kevin De Bruyne have created more chances than Grealish so far this season.
Here are the 16 chances he’s created from non-cross passes (long story) so far:
Almost all of them are either passes into the penalty area or passes from inside the penalty area. He’s not a quarterback throwing a five-yard screen pass that ends up going for a 70-yard TD. Grealish is putting the ball on a platter for his teammates, which is why he’s, once again, second in the Premier League to only Harry Kane in expected assists, which is the best estimation of the combined quantity and quality of goal-scoring opportunities a player creates.
Put the shooting and the creation together, and Grealish is third behind Kane and Son in non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes, and he’s fourth behind those two and Sadio Mane in non-penalty xG+xA per 90 minute. Purely in terms of scoring and creating, Grealish has been one of the three or four best players in the Premier League -- and we haven’t even gotten to all of the stuff he does before the final shot or final pass yet.
Think of a great passer and what do you see? It’s probably something like Kevin De Bruyne’s hammer-hit, bending, driven through balls or Xavi’s constant, velcro-like one-touch passing up and down the field. But in terms of truly effective passing, the best players are the ones who move the ball up the field vertically and the ones who move the ball into the penalty area. Grealish does both.
FBRef defines a “progressive pass” as “Completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent's goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or completed passes into the penalty area. Excludes passes from the defending 40% of the pitch.” Grealish has completed 48 progressive passes so far this season; only the Liverpool duo of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, the Leeds duo of Luke Ayling and Mateusz Klich, and Bruno Fernandes have completed more.
Now, outside of creating a chance or scoring a goal, perhaps the most valuable thing an attacking player can do is to move the ball into the penalty area. Why? Well, the penalty area is closer to the goal, and the closer you get to the goal, the more likely you are to, uh, score a goal. But on top of that obvious rhetorical statement, defenders also have to defend differently inside the box. If they don’t, they’ll give up penalties, which are essentially worth three-quarters of a goal based on the standard conversion rate. And if they do defend differently, then there’s more room for the attacking team to maneuver the ball around and get off a shot. Simply put, good things happen when you move the ball into the box. And through eight games, only Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fernandes, Salah, and De Bruyne have completed more passes into the box than Grealish.
To put a finer point on all this and connect it to scoring goals, FBref created a stat called “shot-creating actions”, which they define as, “The two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls. Note: A single player can receive credit for multiple actions and the shot-taker can also receive credit.” Only Salah and De Bruyne have more such actions so far this season, but no player has created more shots with his open-play passing than Grealish’s 32. And of those 32 shots, seven of them ended up in the net -- a number, once again, matched only by Kane.
Last season, Grealish was fouled 167 times -- 48 more fouls than the next biggest sufferer, Crystal Palace’s Wilifried Zaha. While this clearly spoke to some kind of unmatched ability to fool defenders into thinking they could win the ball, getting hacked down over and over again also probably wasn’t the best use of that ability. As The Athletic’s Tom Worville wrote over the summer:
In basketball, fouls result in an ability to score more points from the foul line. In ice hockey, sin-bins mean you are given a man advantage. Right now in football, the penalty is that you potentially receive a yellow card, but your team will have a few moments to regroup at the back.
Given the laws of the game right now, there are certain situations where Grealish and Villa would benefit from him releasing the ball sooner as the value of a free kick against a set defence is lower than a chance to continue an attack in transition. Plenty of the situations where he is fouled in are also due to relatively poor movement by his team-mates, meaning winning a foul is the best option.
Grealish is once again topping the fouled chart, but not by an astronomical margin: 29, compared to Mane’s second-most 27. He’s instead found a way to make his dribbling more effective. Grealish is dribbling more often this season -- 4.74 take-ons attempted per 90, up from 3.34 last season -- and beating the defender more often, too: 70-percent success rate, up from 59 percent last season. Only Allan Saint-Maximin and the One True King Adama Traore have beat more players with the ball at their feet over the first eight matches.
Dribbling isn’t only about taking opponents out of the play, either. Grealish has progressed the ball 1968 yards this year with the ball at his feet, nearly 100 yards further than Ayling’s next-best mark of 1882. He’s Villa’s quarterback and running back, all at once.
So, what does it look like when you have a player who can move the ball from front to back all by himself, who doesn’t fall down when he gets hit, and who can slip a pass into the penalty area? Arsenal got a taste of it on Sunday:
Jack Grealish is maybe the best creator in the league, currently a top-20 goal scorer, arguably the top passer-before-the-assist, and undoubtedly the best player at progressing the ball up the field, whether with a pass or all on his own. He’s more influential in build-up play than just about anyone, and yet somehow he’s also taken the second-most touches in the penalty area, behind only Salah. There’s no one in the league -- and barely anyone in the world -- who can lay claim to all of those things. And there’s no one I’d rather watch right now; there’s a brutish, unstoppable, inevitable elegance to his game that demands your attention.
Add it all up, and you’re left with the most valuable player in the Premier League through eight games. Per the DAVIES model, which sums up a number of relevant actions and determines roughly how much goalscoring probability an individual player contributes to his team, Grealish has been worth an additional 2.79 goals so far this season -- more than anyone in England.
As always, the Daily Mail was dead wrong about another young star. But I don’t know if anyone ever expected Grealish to be this good. He’s carrying Aston Villa toward a top-four challenge, and if he keeps this up, he should be a star for England at the Euros. Who knows what happens after that -- because, right now? There isn’t a single team in the world that wouldn’t be better off with Jack Grealish in their starting lineup.
Did you lose a bet to Yung Foofi? What. Is. Happening.