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The Breakdown

Analysis: Revisiting Jack Grealish's special FA Cup semi-final performance

Can the youngster replicate his outstanding display against Arsenal on Saturday?

ON 19 APRIL, Jack Grealish started the biggest game of his career so far.

For a 19-year-old, there’s been considerable pressure on his shoulders for a while. A prodigious talent, his star has been steadily on the rise since getting 20 minutes at the Brittania Stadium in Aston Villa’s first game of the Premier League season.

But the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley was an immense occasion and going by the media coverage, Grealish was superb. But how deserved was the praise? Was it an example of the usual hyperbole that greets an impressive display by any young player or did it have merit?

Well, Grealish was great. And here’s why.


Years ago, I sat in a small, dark room in RTÉ alongside John Giles. We were watching Chelsea and he was growing increasingly angry with the flame-haired figure of Steve Sidwell. His mind was made up. He was desperate to do some analysis on the midfielder shirking responsibility.

“You can easily hide on a football pitch and look like you’re doing a lot,” Giles told me.

“Just watch Sidwell — he’s supposed to be in the middle of the park, dictating the play. Instead, he’s floating, telling others who to pass it to. He’s scared and out of his depth.”

Sidwell lasted one season at Stamford Bridge and then joined Aston Villa. Ironically, watching Grealish at Wembley brought back memories of that conversation with Giles.


The youngster’s first touch saw him race across from the left wing into the central midfield zone to pick up a pass from Ron Vlaar. He showed for the ball. On the biggest occasion of his career, he didn’t want to hide. He wanted to revel in the high-profile nature of the game.

He took two touches before off-loading but that wasn’t the point. He got on the ball early and it came about from being purposeful and wanting to be involved. When in possession, he didn’t try a flick or a difficult pass, he knew he was closed down and kept it simple. It provided a confident platform and he never looked back all afternoon.


The biggest example of Grealish keeping calm was when Villa scored their second goal. On the counter-attack, Benteke races into the left channel and Grealish supports him, drifting in behind. When he gains possession, he’s incredibly mature as he weighs up his options.

The natural thing for a young player to do when they get a sight of goal is (a) take on a long-range effort to have your Hollywood moment or (b) dwell on the ball for too long, mesmerised momentarily at the prospect of potentially scoring at Wembley, and inevitably get smothered by an opposing player.

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Instead, Grealish takes a couple of touches, has the awareness to recognise he’s not being closed down and has the time to settle down and compose himself. So often, young players seem as though they have little time on the ball because they can’t compartmentalise and can’t take a breath.

Grealish takes special care to draw Martin Skrtel towards him before sliding it through for Fabien Delph who finishes well from close range. It looks so simple but under the circumstances, he did so well to keep so calm.


Despite his energy and pace, Grealish didn’t allow his natural instincts take over under the bright lights. For the most part, he made sure he got the basics right and avoided attempting anything too risky.

There was one under-hit pass that sought out an overlap on the right side but instead was easily cut-out by Philippe Coutinho. It didn’t affect him. He put his hand up to take responsibility and instantly went about trying to get the ball back. His next involvement saw him pop up in a more familiar position on the left where he dropped a shoulder, and maybe considered a dazzling run, before he thought better and played a simple 10-yard pass instead.

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For Villa’s opening goal, he raced towards the penalty area after initial good work by Delph but steadied himself to time the pass perfectly. Again, it would’ve been easy to lose himself in the moment, dally too long on the ball and attempt to slide it through when Delph had strayed into an offside position. Instead, it was sharp from Grealish. He was clued in from the very start and kept that same focus and intelligence until his eventual substitution.


For much of the game, Grealish ventured back into his own half to get a touch of the ball or popped up in central positions occasionally but he was very much a left-winger. In the second period, Tim Sherwood had enough faith in the teenager to push him inside and allow him the freedom to drift into a central midfield role.

Credit must go to the Villa manager who could see Grealish was relishing getting on the ball as much as possible. His purposeful running was causing Liverpool a constant headache and he dictated affairs even more after he changed position.

He almost set up Benteke for another in the second half but his pass was slightly overcooked and the striker ended up having to pick out Tom Cleverley at the edge of the box instead of taking on his own shot first-time.

Britain Soccer FA Cup Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP/Press Association Images Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

And when he made an excellent run into the area and was found by Benteke, a possible shot on goal was thwarted by Dejan Lovren’s terrific challenge while Kieran Richardson followed up and sent a wild shot veering well off-target.

For the 84 minutes he was on the pitch, Grealish kept the ball superbly well (he has the highest pass completion percentage at Aston Villa with a whopping 92%), demonstrated a desire to dictate the play and trouble Liverpool while displaying an eye-catching maturity on what was a momentous occasion for him.

A version of this piece was originally published on 21 April, 2015

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