Manchester City and Aston Villa would have faced each other on the opening weekend of this Premier League campaign had Pep Guardiola’s side not reached the final stages of the Champions League in Lisbon and earned an extra week to recuperate.
Plenty of what’s happened since then – for both of these clubs and throughout the division – would have been impossible to predict, with a strange season springing surprises at every turn.
However, had City and Villa played one another in September, most observers would have confidently looked towards Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish to supply the creative inspiration for their respective teams.
It is safe to say each star midfielder has lived up to his billing over the first half of the campaign
Grealish earned a long-awaited England debut earlier this season and was a bright spark when England suffered a 2-0 Nations League defeat in Belgium.
Before the match, the 25-year-old told Sky Sports he spent his final preparations casting an admiring eye over a certain member of the opposition.
For the past 24 hours, I’ve been watching little clips of my favourite players like I do before every game. I watch loads of clips. I watch clips of De Bruyne, I watch clips of [Philippe] Coutinho, just players that are in my position, really.
That’s what I’ve done since I was a little kid and I still do it to this day – I have no shame in saying that and that’s what gets me going for football matches.
After the match, De Bruyne conceded Grealish had also captured his attention.
I rate him very highly. He’s somebody I mentioned before, talking to the teammates at City, in a random conversation. In England they talked about creative problems in midfield, but he brings that to a team. He deserves a shot.
Those warm words from De Bruyne seemed to carry a little more weight when a move for Grealish was rumoured to be one of the topics of discussion during Guardiola’s successful contract extension negotiations in November.
Given the City boss already must try to accommodate the playmaking talents of Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva around De Bruyne, it is questionable whether he needs such a reinforcement in his creative department.
However, data from this season shows Grealish is doing plenty to match the reigning PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
Both De Bruyne and Grealish have started 15 Premier League games apiece this season, with the latter playing one more minute overall.
In that time, the Villa man has created 55 chances to De Bruyne’s 51, although City’s number 17 has 10 assists to Grealish’s seven following an outrageous outside-of-the-boot cross for John Stones to open the scoring in Sunday’s 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace.
Overall, they are second and third in the Premier League’s assists table, with Harry Kane’s fruitful relationship with Son Heung-min helping the England captain to amass 11 for Tottenham.
When looking at the overall Expected Assists (xA) table for the Premier League, again it’s the Villa and City creators who come out on top.
Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes separates them when it comes to chances created, having crafted 54 for his Old Trafford colleagues.
Those numbers continue to look incredibly strong when projected across Europe’s top five leagues.
Hakan Calhanoglu has created 58 chances for Serie A leaders Milan, although only six of those have been converted, while the continental top five is rounded out by Lyon’s Memphis Depay and Chelsea’s Mason Mount.
Goals, Guile and Grubby work
De Bruyne has fired off 57 shots this season (17 on target) to Grealish’s 40 (14 on target). However, City’s designated penalty taker has only scored three, with his first Premier League goal from open play this season coming earlier in January at Chelsea. Grealish has weighed in with five for Dean Smith’s men, including a double in their logic-defying 7-2 evisceration of champions Liverpool.
One area in which Grealish excels is in his ball-carrying ability. Using our carry metrics (defined as the player moving the ball five metres or more) we can now highlight just how effective Grealish is at running with the ball.
So far this season, the Englishman has created 25 chances following a ball carry – that’s more than anyone in Europe’s top five leagues.
One area where Grealish draws ire from some rival fans is the number of times he’d fouled each game. In the 2019-20 season, Grealish was fouled more times in total than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues (167), and that tally of fouls suffered in a single season is a Premier League record. In 2020-21, his 73 fouls won is comfortably the highest in the division, with Palace’s Wilfred Zaha (51), Liverpool’s Sadio Mane (43) and Kane (40) up next.
A key reason for this could be how integral Grealish is to so much of Villa’s attacking play. He is responsible for 11 per cent of his team’s passes. By contrast, Zaha and Kane make five per cent and Mane four. So much of Villa’s attacking play goes through the midfielders that he is a magnet for drawing defender attention.
To both De Bruyne and Grealish’s credit, as players who cherish the ball so much, they do do plenty to get it back.
The UEFA midfielder of the year has made 74 recoveries, 27 tackles and seven interceptions in the Premier League this season, compared to 79 recoveries, 23 tackles and eight interceptions for Grealish. The pair both rank inside the Premier League top 25 for recoveries and tackles made.
It seems implausible that these two midfield maestros will stray too far from the thick of the action at the Etihad Stadium, which should make for a very watchable encounter.
Whether or not it amounts to a live audition for Grealish, only time will tell.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to The Analyst to receive five stories each Friday from Stats Perform. It’s free.