Aston Villa vs Manchester United: Where would Jack Grealish fit in under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?

Mark Critchley
·4-min read
Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish: 2020 Pool
Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish: 2020 Pool

It is tempting to look at Manchester United's recent improvement and the settled first-choice starting line-up that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has finally established and ask: where exactly would Jack Grealish fit in?

Grealish remains among United’s targets for the next transfer window and is greatly admired by Solskjaer, who was complimentary about the Aston Villa captain when previewing Thursday night’s trip to the west Midlands.

"He scored a fantastic goal,” the United manager said, thinking back to the 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture in December, when Grealish stepped inside from the left wing, around a stranded Andreas Pereira and effortlessly curled the ball into the top right-hand corner.

It was a sublime goal and Solskjaer was impressed enough to seek Grealish out at the final whistle and tell him he was “the best player on the pitch today” at full time. Speculation linking him and Old Trafford has persisted since.

“There's been lots said and talked about him and we need to be aware of him,” Solskjaer added on Wednesday. “Whoever is close to him, if he's off the left, in the middle, on the right. What he does is attract players to him and create space for others.”

Those are all qualities that Solskjaer would be happy to see Grealish bring to United next season, but despite his fine return to the top flight after three years toiling to lift Villa out of the Championship, exactly where he would play under Solskjaer and who he would replace in unclear.

If there is one player who looks undroppable at the moment, and central to everything that United do in possession, it is Bruno Fernandes. His arrival in January has provided Solskjaer with the dynamic, all-action No 10 that his preferred 4-2-3-1 system required and United’s one-dimensional attacking was crying out for.

The No 10 role may be Grealish’s natural position but he has spent much of the past year wide on the left, cutting inside on his natural right foot - the position he scored from in front of the Stretford End. In that role, United have Marcus Rashford - the player who symbolises the modern, home-grown United that Solskjaer envisions more than any other.

You can imagine Grealish as a ‘free eight’ in central midfield - the type of role that Kevin de Bruyne fulfills for Manchester City, occupying half-spaces and orchestrating intricate moves on the edge of the penalty area. Grealish is a huge admirer of De Bruyne, going so far as to base his own game around him.

Yet United have arguably their most gifted player - Paul Pogba - in that position and even behind him, central midfield is arguably the one area where Solskjaer’s squad is well-stocked with quality options. Fred and Scott McTominay combined well before the restart, though are now behind Nemanja Matic in the pecking order.

United are lacking in one area, though. If Grealish were to move, he may become the highest-profile and most talented backup player on the books at Old Trafford. For someone of his ability, that would feel like a waste. Grealish has earned a big move away from Villa with his performances over the past few seasons, as even many Villa supporters admit, and automatic starting status with it.

But if United are going to build on this 16-game unbeaten run that has turned Solskjaer’s fortunes around and mount a genuine title challenge next season, then they need added depth. The limitations of their second string were laid bare in the limp performance away at Norwich City in the FA Cup quarter-finals - a display which raised a lot of questions about what will happen if key players like Rashford, Fernandes or Pogba become injured.

There is an inherent difficulty in squad-building. Back-up players need to be good enough to deputise when needed, though not so talented that they are unhappy with a lack of regular playing time. Building squad depth requires skill, compromise and - when you cannot find the perfect cover - a little luck with avoiding injuries. The gap in quality between Liverpool’s front three and those in reserve is a case in point.

Solskjaer dismissed the idea that Grealish would be in any way ‘on trial’ at Villa Park on Thursday night. “Every time any player plays against Man United it's a challenge because first of all Man United is a good team but also the whole world is watching. It's not just playing in front of Man United supporters or manager or team, it's for himself.”

But Grealish’s appeal is not only what he could offer United on-the-pitch, but also in reserve.

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