Jack Grealish was the best player on the pitch when Aston Villa drew 2-2 at Old Trafford last weekend. No-one else on either side could have scored that beautiful goal; very few players in the Premier League could have. Reports of his current buyout clause range from £30million to £70million. But just how much is Grealish worth?

As he picked the ball up on the left of the area, he already knew what he was going to do. His opponent Andreas Pereira had no idea. Earlier in the game – in a similar position – Grealish went to the byline and pulled the ball back with his left foot and on another occasion played a slide rule pass to his overlapping fullback.

A cunningly laid trap or fateful coincidence? What came before made little difference to the majesty of the goal Grealish was about to score, but was vital in creating the doubt that enabled him to do so.

The Villa midfielder didn’t look at the ball until the final point of contact – the whipped shot into the postage stamp located at the corner of post and bar. Before then he took three almost imperceptible touches, focusing his gaze not on the ball but avidly on Pereira’s feet, knowing the Brazilian would make the first move. And at the merest hint of motion from the midfielder towards the byline, Grealish made his own move, cutting in on his right foot to score one of the memorable Old Trafford goals, in front of the Stretford End.

Jack the lad – revitalised and much improved – is back.

First impressions are hard to shake, particularly when they are entrenched through a series of tabloid news stories that support the initial suspicion. But don’t be fooled by the slicked back hair, fake tan and low-slung socks that remain: this is a very different Grealish to the one relegated from the Premier League in 2016.

He’s still the cocky, brash, well-preened Brummie icon. But now, instead of using his sculpted calves to strut the length of Broad Street, he’s using them to glide past defenders and put them on their arses, like a Chris Waddle of old or a George Best of older.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was predictably asked about rumours linking the 24-year-old with a move to United post-game and gave the stock manager response of not being able to “talk too much about other teams’ players”, while simultaneously eulogising over him. Pep Guardiola has described him as “exceptional”, while everyone else remains bemused by his exclusion from the latest England squads. Speculation linking him with a move away will roll on in line with the exponential improvement in the maturity and calibre of his performances.

Villa use him in a roaming role, starting from the left. It’s not his most effective position or the one he wants to be playing, but one that utilises his talents in the way that serves Dean Smith’s side best: a team that lacks creativity needs their most inventive asset as close to goal as possible. But despite the position he plays for Villa, his aesthetics and the perception they’ve created, he’s much less a show pony than a conductor.

He’s not quite a Jorginho or Fabinho, but still the player capable of controlling the speed and direction of the football his team plays. A Big Six side would likely use him as a number eight, a position from which he could use his dribbling expertise to build attacks from deep and not necessarily deliver the final ball, but more often the pass before that killer blow.

To Villa, the question of how much Grealish is worth and how much Premier League football is worth are one and the same. With him they sit 15th in the table, one point above the relegation zone. Without his three goals and four assists – which if anything belittles the worth of his all-round game – they would be level on points with Norwich in 19th.

Letting him go in January would be tantamount to football treason. He’s more Villa than Harry Kane is Spurs or Trent Alexander-Arnold is Liverpool. Grealish is the lifeblood of his football club, and he – along with the fans – will fear what would happen should he up sticks and follow the lure of Champions League football – where his talents belong.

Tottenham have come closest to luring Grealish away, with the man himself admitting his head had been turned in the summer of 2018 with an offer on the table from Spurs. But when the north London side were unwilling to increase their £25million offer to £32million, the deal fell through and Grealish remained at his boyhood club.

If Villa now offered Grealish to any club with the means to spend £32million on the Birmingham-born midfielder, he’d be gone before you could say “Peaky Blinders”. He’s a ready-made leader with extraordinary talent, now without the can he do it in the Premier League? caveat or previously lingering doubts over his commitment to his profession. This is a footballer capable of more, but understandably tied to the club and community that have given him so much. He won’t be there forever, Villans, so just enjoy him while you can.

Oh sorry, what’s he worth? F*** knows…a lot.

Will Ford

 

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Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk insists playing behind a new-look attacking midfield does not make his life more difficult.

Manager Jurgen Klopp opted for his previously-untried three of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita alongside mainstay Fabinho and it paid off handsomely with the England midfielder scoring twice in a 4-1 Champions League win in Genk.

The performance was not without its issues, particularly in the first half, when the space either side and behind Fabinho saw the hosts create a few decent chances which a better side would probably have converted.

After being presented with a challenge by Manchester United’s tactics in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, it meant Van Dijk and a defence missing 50 per cent of its regular starters were stretched until Oxlade-Chamberlain scored his second to make it 2-0 12 minutes into the second half.

Klopp’s offence-minded midfield combination is one which fans have been crying out for to inject some more creativity in the side – but did that make it more difficult for Van Dijk?

“I don’t think so. We still had Fabinho in front of us who cleans up everything,” said the Holland international.

“They left one or two strikers up front and we tried to get involved. That’s the way we play.

“We just have to do better at winning the second balls and in the transition with the counter-press.”

Ultimately the trade-off worked with Oxlade-Chamberlain scoring twice on his first Champions League appearance in 18 months after recovering from a serious knee injury in the semi-final of the competition in April 2018.

And it was an outcome which was hugely popular with team-mates and supporters alike.

“He’s worked so hard to get back to this point and he deserves a night like that,” said Van Dijk.

“He’s such a great guy, such an important guy for the group. He’s a quality player and he showed it, not only with his goals, but also with his all-round game.

“During a difficult period, he always managed to stay positive. We were all there for him.

“Pre-season was tough for him but he’s showing a lot of great things right now. He’s so sharp. His goals made the difference.

“The first one was so important and the second was a killer for them. It’s just great to see him back out there.”

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No, it wasn’t a penalty. Jose Callejon clearly initiated contact with Andy Robertson and, unfortunately, neither the referee nor the VAR were able – or willing – to correct their decision.

But the incident still characterised the tone of Liverpool’s performance. They were slack and ever so slightly complacent. They had good moments and promised goals at different points of the game, but Roberson’s wifty challenge was indicative of an attitude which wasn’t quite what it should have been. Not that he deserves a flogging, because he remains overwhelmingly in credit, but any modern defender knows that if you dangle a leg out like that then, most likely, someone will take an opportunist tumble.

So two conclusions, both of which are true: Liverpool were done by the referee, but they also paid the price for a lack of a mental sharpness.

That showed in different facets of the game. For the penalty, of course, and that strange Virgil van Dijk mistake which Fernando Llorente turned into a second goal, but also in their uncommon inaccuracy at the other end of the pitch.

If the game had an emblem, then it would be that, in particular the mess Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah made of that second-half counter. The pass Mane tried to play was far harder than it looked, but it was still the kind of opportunity that this team – and those players – habitually exploit week after week.

In fact, as that move was developing, who didn’t think it was destined to end with the ball in the net and one of those players wheeling away in celebration?

In a way, that’s a measure of the respect that Jurgen Klopp’s side now command. They are usually so precise and so ruthless that when that killer quality is missing, it provokes incredibly harsh criticism.

And it is harsh, because there was plenty of good in that performance. Collectively, because it was far superior to what Liverpool offered in Naples a year ago. But also individually: Sarah Winterburn has already written about a very fine Fabinho display, and there were notable showings from, among others, Jordan Henderson and Adrian.

Still, let’s not lose sight of what Napoli are. Serie A is just three games old, but Carlo Ancelotti’s side began their season by conceding three goals in both of their first two games – to Juventus and Fiorentina – and, while they kept a clean sheet at the weekend, that fragility was definitely in evidence last night. Kalidou Koulibaly is a brilliant defender, but he is not part of a brilliant defence; if Napoli survive the group, they’ll be eliminated by the first efficient side they face.

So this was a game Liverpool should have won. That they lost isn’t cause for any alarm, but it has created a degree of uncertainty within a group which should have been straightforward. On the evidence of what they did to Genk, nobody should be looking forward to playing RB Salzburg, either.

It’s important because Klopp’s players could do with making the first part of their Champions League defence as processional as possible. They’ve already established a handy lead back home, but Manchester City will inevitably improve and, when that happens, Liverpool will need to match their power. The ideal scenario, then, would have been to have this group won within three or four games, not for it to remain in the balance.

Not incidentally, that visit to Salzburg is scheduled for December 10 which, television permitting, will come six days after the first Merseyside derby of the season and three days on from an awkward looking trip to Bournemouth. The likely legacy of defeat in Naples will probably be that Liverpool have to enter that stadium, with its feverish atmosphere, needing a result to secure top spot or, worse, qualification itself.

In isolation, nothing which happened on Tuesday night was too significant. However, with the knowledge that Liverpool’s ability to achieve their season’s objectives will partly depend on how easy they make life for themselves and how much leeway they can create throughout their season, it was an inconvenient, avoidable and irritating mishap. A game that they could afford to lose – this morning’s Mailbox is absolutely right about that, but one which would have been very useful to win.

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter

 

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Nicolas Pepe looks set to become the latest player to move from Ligue 1 to the top end of the Premier League. Here, we rank the last 10 stars to cross the Channel for the Big Six…

 

10) Tiemoue Bakayoko – Chelsea
The Paris-born midfielder, who joined Chelsea from Monaco for £40million – their second most expensive signing at the time – had somewhat rebuilt his reputation during a season-long loan at AC Milan after a ropey start at the San Siro, but Bakayoko has reportedly failed to impress Frank Lampard any more than he managed with Antonio Conte.

The mere mention of his name transports Chelsea fans straight back to Vicarage Road where the 24-year-old was sent off for two bookings before the half-hour in a 4-1 defeat in February last year. Milan may take him off their hands permanently but Chelsea will have to take a big hit on the once-capped France midfielder.

 

9) Michy Batshuayi – Chelsea
It seems Chelsea still don’t know what to do with Batshuayi. Presumably he would be away if they could sign replacements but circumstances could give the 25-year-old an opportunity to nail down a place in Lampard’s squad following three loan moves in the last 18 months during which he has scored 18 goals for Borussia Dortmund, Valencia and Crystal Palace.

Whatever they decide, it certainly wasn’t the plan when Chelsea paid Marseille £33million for the Belgium centre-forward three years ago.

 

8) Benjamin Mendy – Man City
Injuries have restricted the £52million signing to 17 Premier League appearances in two seasons but knee problems haven’t stopped the former Monaco man from playing the clown. Pep Guardiola would rather have a left-back than a globetrotting cheerleader, which presumably forced City to buy back Angelino. Who was ‘absolutely awful’ last week…

7) Serge Aurier – Spurs
The Ivory Coast defender showed signs of improvement last season – among some trouser-dirtying moments for Spurs fans too – but he managed only six starts in the Premier League as fitness concerns linger.

With Mauricio Pochettino having sold Kieran Trippier to Atletico Madrid, Aurier needs to get his act together in this, his third season in English football. Unless the Spurs boss has indeed decided to play Juan Foyth as his starting right-back.

 

6) David Luiz – Chelsea
The Brazilian’s £34million move from PSG in 2016 was his second stab at a Chelsea career after he was sold to the French champions for £50million two years previously and though he has largely made a better fist of it than the first attempt, most Blues would probably just have shrugged at the sight of the 32-year-old walking away upon the expiry of his contract last season.

As it is, because Chelsea can’t sign anyone else, they have given Luiz two more years to get them through a transfer ban and to give the likes of Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu time to blossom into centre-backs worthy of phasing him out.

 

5) Fabinho – Liverpool
Liverpool’s £40million capture of the Brazilian was kept weirdly quiet until it was announced shortly after their 2018 Champions League final defeat and the start of his Anfield career was equally bizarre. Jurgen Klopp appeared petrified of using the former Monaco midfielder amid the hustle and bustle of the Premier League and the Liverpool boss was reportedly considering sending Fabinho away at the first opportunity in January.

But the patient approach paid off. Fabinho was eased in and grew over the course of the season which he ended as first choice in Klopp’s midfield. The 25-year-old also proved his versatility by slotting in a right-back and centre-back.

 

4) Lucas Moura – Spurs
It didn’t seem to matter what Moura did last season – if everyone was fit, the Brazilian was usually out. Even after scoring the incredible hat-trick which took Spurs to the Champions League final, he was benched for the Madrid meeting with Liverpool.

It speaks well of his form since arriving from PSG in January 2018 that many felt Moura was Spurs’ best chance of troubling Virgil van Dijk. But Pochettino opted for a half-fit Kane and Van Dijk pocketed the Spurs centre-forward and a winner’s medal leaving the Brazilian understandably miffed.

3) Alexandre Lacazette – Arsenal
The £46million signing carried the goalscoring burden for Arsenal before his mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang showed up six months later to share the load. Together they have forged one of the Premier League’s best strike partnerships and emerged as just about the only good thing about Arsenal last season.

Aubameyang took a share of the Premier League Golden Boot with 22 goals but Lacazette weighed in 13 while laying on another 10. Unai Emery will be expecting 20 plus in all competitions this season, especially if Nicolas Pepe is providing the ammunition.

 

2) Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Man Utd
We shouldn’t forget how good Zlatan was in his first season at United, which turned out to be his only full campaign in the Premier League and even that was ended prematurely by a knee injury. He notched 28 goals in all competitions and was nominated for the PFA Player of the Season for helping United to win the League Cup – he scored twice in the final – and Europa League.

Ibrahimovic didn’t hit the same heights upon re-signing for United after his knee injury but allowing him to join LA Galaxy might still be seen as a mistake given the influence he had upon the dressing room at Old Trafford. When Zlatan went, the mentality shifted, leaving Jose Mourinho to fight a losing battle.

 

1) Bernardo Silva – Man City
“For me, to drop Bernardo Silva right now is almost impossible. Right now it is Bernardo and 10 more players,” said Pep Guardiola as City geared up in February for the sprint to the Premier League finish line. “I don’t know what this guy has done this season. Playing in the middle and outside, every single game he played perfect.”

Pep likes to talk his players up but Bernardo’s contribution spoke for itself. The Portuguese schemer, a £43million signing from Monaco two years ago, was City’s best player in a Treble-winning season, combining creativity with endless graft.

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