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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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Jose Mourinho turned on the spot, skipped back to his dugout and delivered a short, sharp punch to the air. As he continued his journey, he pumped both fists and channelled his energy towards the pitch, bowing his head and releasing whatever noise was available to him in the moment. It mattered not; the away fans would drown it out anyway.

It had been a while since they had been given much to enjoy on their travels after all. Not since January had Tottenham won a Premier League away game. Boxing Day marked their last such victory against a team still in the top flight.

But for Mourinho, only one thing was on his mind. Much as Mauricio Pochettino made a habit of sharing such instances of unbridled joy with Jesus Perez, the tentative new stepfather made an instant beeline for Joao Sacramento.

You can tell a lot about the nature of a goal through not only how a manager celebrates it, but also how his assistant and coaching team does. If they choose to acknowledge it separately, then it has likely been born of individual error or fortune. If there is a mixture of flailing arms, mouths agape and general indecision as to how to react, then it was liekly a wonder strike impossible to account for or predict. But if they seek out one another instinctively, the chances are that they have seen that pass, that run, that move, that goal before.

It is impossible to know what Mourinho worked on in the three days of preparation for this game. But his embrace with Sacramento for the opening goal suggests any training-ground work involved Harry Winks splitting the lines of defence and midfield with one pass, Dele Alli controlling it with a single touch and playing it through to Son Heung-min with another, and the South Korean beating his defender before planting a shot beyond the keeper.

A minute prior to that strike, Winks again drove an inch-perfect pass through West Ham’s heart and into Harry Kane, whose delightful flick left Alli in space. The deft pass was again intended for Son but Declan Rice was, on this occasion, in place to thwart it. Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, and by the time the same move was conducted again before half-time, it was clear this was a pattern.

And that should not be underplayed. It is unclear when Tottenham approached Mourinho but it was soon obvious that he has not used the last 11 months to build a friendship with Graeme Souness, develop a taste for humble pie or intently study Tim Sherwood’s fashion sense. He has been working, watching, waiting for his chance to reestablish his relevance.

This is a small step. It was almost a misstep. Tottenham were the better side in a drab opening 20 minutes, excellent for the subsequent 40 then painfully absent for the final 30. West Ham were the perfect opponents to face in these circumstances, and Roberto the single most welcoming host since Des Lynam. “Shouldn’t you be at work?” he asked a prone Angelo Ogbonna, shortly after accidentally punching him in the face to clear a ball that no Tottenham player was challenging for.

But this was progress and, most importantly, different. Mourinho stressed before the game that he does not wish to demolish what Pochettino has built; he is merely here to build on it and offer the project fresh direction and impetus. The small changes – Paulo Gazzaniga not playing it short from goal kicks, a more direct style of play and Serge Aurier looking vaguely competent – were simply new ingredients to an existing recipe.

Dele Alli is a fine example. He has been gradually improving over the past few weeks but, on this evidence, Mourinho can help him take the final steps towards where he once was. And that, rather than drastic, wholesale alterations, will be key.

Mourinho said it himself: this squad is a “gift” for a manager who inherited a broth spoiled by too many cooks at Manchester United and only made things worse. Pochettino has handed down a group of players familiar to one another, moulded to a style and system the new coach appreciates.

Michail Antonio and Ogbonna’s late goals will give Mourinho and his staff rather a lot more to consider than he expected when Kane gave Tottenham a commanding lead in the 49th minute. But there was enough on show to suggest he could be a success.

Matt Stead

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

England suffered their first qualifying defeat in a decade as they were beaten 2-1 by the Czech Republic on Friday night, resulting in some criticism for Gareth Southgate’s team selection.

We’ve taken a look at all the players in and around the national team squad to have featured prominently for their clubs this season, comparing their stats to see who’s in the best form and most worthy of a place in the Three Lions’ starting line-up.

We’re looking at the positions where there’s still seemingly something up for grabs, leaving out the non-negotiable core of Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane.

Read the article at Planet Football.

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That it took 76 minutes to break down Aston Villa last weekend will not fill Tottenham Hotspur fans with confidence ahead of a trip to Manchester City, who barely had to move out of first gear on Saturday to destroy West Ham. Three years of Pep Guardiola’s tactical training have given City the muscle memory to pass and move in perfect triangles, making them vastly superior to any other team in England.

But Tottenham do tend to raise their game when facing Man City, pressing aggressively to create a tense and oppressive midfield battle. The win won’t come easy for Guardiola’s side, and yet with Tottenham looking vulnerable in the full-back positions and missing both Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli, the hosts should collect the three points.

Here are five tactical questions ahead of Man City v Spurs:

 

1) Will Pochettino go three at the back to sure up Rose and Walker-Peters?
Tottenham lined up in a 3-5-2 formation the last time these sides met, a 1-0 victory for Man City at the Etihad in April, and Mauricio Pochettino could deploy the same formation to provide additional support to Danny Rose and Kyle Walker-Peters. Both full-backs have an error in them, Rose having been beaten too easily by John McGinn in Spurs’ opener and 22-year-old Walker-Peters still raw. Playing with three centre-backs also has its advantages in helping to close out the inside-forward spaces in which Raheem Sterling tends to occupy.

However, it is more likely that Pochettino will use the diamond 4-4-2 that began the Aston Villa match, not least because Juan Foyth’s injury and apparent fitness concerns over Jan Vertonghen leaves the Tottenham manager with limited options at the back. In a diamond, Spurs can pack the midfield with bodies while giving Christian Eriksen the creative freedom he enjoyed against Villa from an advanced role – as well as pick Harry Kane and Lucas Moura to counter-attack together up front.

 

2) Will Ndombele be able to prevent De Bruyne from running the right channel?
The diamond formation, essentially using four central midfielders, should create a claustrophobic and compact game at the Etihad, more reminiscent of the three 1-0s between the sides last year than City’s 4-3 win in the Champions League. In such a cluttered midfield battle, the key head-to-head is between Tanguy Ndombele and Kevin de Bruyne.

De Bruyne’s role has changed slightly this season. The Belgian alternates between dropping alongside Rodri to help out his new team-mate defensively and drifting out into the right half-space to collaborate with Riyad Mahrez in attack. These two overloaded West Ham left-back Aaron Cresswell last weekend to devastating effect, and should be able to similarly trouble Rose on Saturday – particularly if Spurs play with such a narrow midfield.

Moussa Sissoko is likely to be the midfielder closest to Rose, but it is Ndombele’s presence at both ends that should either force De Bruyne alongside Rodri or allow him to roam up the pitch. Should the Frenchman burst forward in possession and seek to support Eriksen, then De Bruyne’s influence will be limited; theirs is a territorial battle that will go some way to deciding which side is on top.

 

3) Can Kane put pressure on Rodri?
Against both Liverpool and West Ham, Rodri was caught in possession on a couple of occasions in the opening 20 minutes, a typical sign of teething problems after arriving in such a fast and physical division. The mainstream narrative is that Rodri managed to adapt as each game wore on, but in reality it’s just that both of City’s opponents lowered the intensity of their pressing and tackling at around the half-hour mark.

Spurs are unlikely to similarly let up. Harry Kane in particular has a big role to play dropping into his favoured number ten position and nicking possession from Rodri, but it would be naïve to pinpoint just one player looking to harass the Spaniard off the ball. The only times West Ham looked close to scoring at London Stadium last Saturday was when Rodri was pickpocketed and space suddenly opened up in the final third. Pochettino will most definitely instruct his players to swarm Rodri.

 

4) How can Spurs target Zinchenko?
The obvious weak point in the Man City team is Oleksandr Zinchenko, who always looks a bit shaky and positionally unsure when playing left-back. However, Tottenham’s probable formation doesn’t provide a clear pathway to target the Ukrainian, particularly given that Walker-Peters will be instructed to play cautiously with Sterling lurking on the left.

Lucas Moura, peeling off to the right, is the only quick attacker in the Spurs team while Heung-Min Son serves his suspension, and so he is their best option to run in behind Zinchenko when Tottenham launch counters. Long balls into the channels from Toby Alderweireld would be a good idea in such a restrictive, high-pressing game.

But such is the complexity and efficiency of Guardiola’s tactic,s Zinchenko is unlikely to be exposed. In fact, he will pop up in central midfield just as often as left-back, providing cover for when Rodri strides into the Spurs half and making himself available for the connecting ball between Kyle Walker and Sterling. Chinks in City’s armour are so minute Spurs probably won’t discover them.

 

5) Will Sterling versus Walker-Peters settle the contest?
The machine-like efficiency of Sterling at the moment should strike fear into Spurs fans, particularly as the game wears on and gaps begin to open up. That he faces Walker-Peters is problematic. The right-back has the athleticism to stand Sterling up when one on one, but the bigger risk is during moments when City counter-attack on the outside of Tottenham’s narrow midfield, with Sterling particularly threatening making runs on the inside of the opposition full-back.

In all probability City’s superiority across the pitch will bring them victory, but should Spurs manage to restrict the hosts then Guardiola will look to Sterling’s one-on-one with Walker-Peters as the main source of a late goal.

 

Alex Keble

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Harry Kane scored an unbelievable goal from the halfway line as Tottenham beat Juventus 3-2 in the International Champions Cup.

Erik Lamela gave Tottenham the lead in the first half before Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo struck back after the break for Juve.

Lucas Moura leveled things up on 65 minutes before England international Kane pulled off a wonder strike in injury time to win the match for Spurs.

Unlike Manchester United v Inter Milan on Saturday, there were a few empty seats at the National Stadium – although those in attendance were arguably more excitable.

There was a strong South Korean contingent at Singapore’s National Stadium and they made themselves heard whenever Son Heung-min got on the ball.

Excitement rose when he hit the outside of the post after four minutes, while Ronaldo tried an overhead kick in a promising start to the International Champions Cup encounter.

The Portuguese flashed a fierce shot wide but Spurs were looking brighter and broke the deadlock on the half-hour mark.

Son showed good composure and awareness to lay off to the overlapping Troy Parrott. The 17-year-old saw a low shot was saved by Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, but Lamela was on hand to direct home.

A drinks break followed a goal that took the sting out of the remainder of the opening period, with the Mexican waves in full flow as the whistle was blown for half-time.

Both sides made a variety of changes at half-time. Moura was among the Spurs introductions and saw a penalty appeal rejected shortly after the restart.

Spurs were pushing but Juventus levelled in the 56th minute as former Chelsea man Higuain hit a low shot past Paulo Gazzaniga.

Kane clipped the post as Mauricio Pochettino’s men looked to immediately regain the lead, only for Ronaldo to pop up at the other end and smartly direct into the far corner.

The Singapore crowd were witnessing an entertaining encounter, with Matthijs de Ligt brought on for his first appearance since signing from Ajax.

Tottenham brought on summer signing Tanguy Ndombele at the same time and he quickly made an impact, threading a pass through for Moura to smartly direct home.

The France midfielder curled just wide and Federico Bernardeschi stung the palms of Gazzaniga as the match continued to ebb and flow.

Kane poked an effort just wide and would settle the match just as a penalty shoot-out loomed large.

Moura won possession and the England captain unleashed a stunning first-time shot from just inside the Juventus half that beat Wojciech Szczesny, sending the crowd wild and securing a 3-2 win in scarcely believable circumstances. It is a goal that will live long in the memory.

 

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