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Jack Grealish for England? Gareth Southgate cannot ignore unique talent

Jack Grealish for England? Gareth Southgate cannot ignore unique talent

With the help of Paul Merson, Adam Bate analyses what makes Jack Grealish so special and why Gareth Southgate must rethink his England plans if they do not include the most creative player in the Premier League…

“What a footballer,” says Jurgen Klopp. “One of the best in the league,” according to Pep Guardiola. For Jose Mourinho, it's his creativity. For Mikel Arteta, his personality. Brendan Rodgers and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer point to his ability to drag opponents out of position. What every Premier League manager can agree on is that Jack Grealish is a bit special.

As he links up with the England squad this week, the relative merits of the Aston Villa captain are being assessed once more. Grealish was named man of the match in his only international start so far - the 3-0 friendly win over Wales at Wembley - but did not make it off the bench for the subsequent competitive games against Belgium and Denmark.

England manager Gareth Southgate already appears sick of answering questions about why the in-form Grealish is being made to wait, but the noise is not going to stop. Not when he is the most creative English player in the Premier League. Not when he joins up on the back of another masterful performance in helping Villa beat Arsenal 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium.

Paul Merson played for both clubs as well as alongside Southgate for Villa and England. He is at a loss to explain why there would be any reluctance to trust in Grealish's talent.

"The lad is just unreal," Merson tells Sky Sports.

"He is one of the only players I just love watching play. Against Arsenal, the goalkeeper throws him the ball and he run the length of the pitch. Hector Bellerin comes over and he just bodies him off and he still has the composure to put the ball through.

"How is he not playing at the top level? I don't really know what I am missing. When I watch him, am I seeing something different that no one else is seeing and I haven't got a clue?"

Southgate has made it clear that he does not consider Grealish as a candidate for one of the deeper roles in midfield. In the current system, that means he is competing with the wide forwards, where Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho are established.

Even among the next in line, Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood remain in the frame, while Mason Mount appears to have won Southgate's favour as a result of his off-the-ball work.

"I don't know whether Southgate may just look at it and wonder what his position is," says Merson. "He is a bit of a free spirit. He plays over on the left but it is definitely a free role.

"He's got his certain players that look like they are going to play every week as long as they remember their boots. But in terms of talent, I said it a long time ago, I think he is the most talented English player we have got. He is the nearest thing to Paul Gascoigne we have had."Southgate himself was quick to brush off that particular comparison but the irony is that one of Gascoigne's most notable traits - his ball-carrying from midfield - has become one of the characteristics of Grealish's game that seems to so divide opinion.

He is routinely accused of holding onto the ball too long. The focus is on what Villa might have gained had he released it quicker rather than what they have gained from his ability to retain it for so long. The statistics clearly highlight his positive impact as a ball-carrier.

No Premier League player has progressed the ball so far upfield this season, with Grealish ranking well ahead of any other midfielder or forward for what Opta calls progressive ball-carries.

There has been an end product too. Nine of these ball-carries have resulted in a shot. Again, that is the most of any player in the Premier League this season. It has been vital for Villa with the solo run that set up Ollie Watkins to score against Arsenal just the latest example.