Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish finally became an England international this year, but his form suggests he should be the second player on Gareth Southgate's teamsheet.
In his stride, running down the left flank while staring at his opponent's feet as he instinctively tries to figure out where to shift the ball to next, Grealish is at his most threatening. Sometimes he will release a teammate with a smart pass, like he did for Ollie Watkins before the striker's second goal in the Villans 3-0 away win over Arsenal on Sunday, and often he will draw a foul.
In fact, no other player in the Premier League has been fouled more than the 25-year-old, who, according to WhoScored.com, has been challenged illegally 4.1 times a game this season. This might be frustrating for the viewer, but winning free-kicks in dangerous positions is an effective way to cause problems for the opposition. It also tells us defenders struggle to dispossess Grealish.
In terms of key passes per match, only Bruno Fernandes (2.9), teammate Ross Barkley (3) and Kevin De Bruyne (3.3) are ahead of the Villa skipper (2.7), while there are just eight players who have had more shots at goal per 90 minutes in the Premier League than he has (3.1). Six of them are strikers; the other two are Barkley and De Bruyne.
Grealish ranks eighth in the league for successful dribbles per match (2.9), but it might be worth considering the fact that those in front of him, such as Sadio Mane, Nelson Semedo, Adama Traore and Allan Saint-Maximin, among others, are quicker than he is, and thus can rely more on their speed and acceleration to complete a take-on than their skill.
Of course, though, statistics don't always tell the entire story. There are factors a computer can't attach numbers to, such as personality, leadership and determination, and this is arguably where Grealish's light shines even brighter. He is the player who always wants the ball, especially when his team is under the cosh. Grealish thrives in taking responsibility; he is always there to be counted.
Click through the gallery below to see where Grealish ranks among Europe's leading creators so far this season:
So, why is the attacking midfielder not one of the first names on Southgate's teamsheet? With four goals and five assists in seven Premier League matches so far this season, he is England's most in-form player behind Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane, who is enjoying a career-best start to the 2020/21 campaign, and deserves more than just a squad number.
Perhaps for Southgate, it's less about Grealish's ability and more about finding where to fit him into his tried and tested system. The Three Lions manager has previously said he thinks of him as an attacker, which has unfortunately hurt his chances of becoming a regular on the international stage, at least until now.
Southgate has several talented wide attacking players at his disposal who have been a part of his set-up for a while, such as Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, and it therefore does make sense as to why he has not yet experimented with a new approach, although that is no longer an excuse, especially with Grealish in far superior form than his abovementioned colleagues.
In the EPL so far this season, he has contributed to more goals (9) than Rashford (5) and Sterling (3) have combined, while Sancho has provided just two assists, and no goals, in six Bundesliga appearances. It is also important to highlight that Grealish is doing this for a team that avoided relegation on the last day of the 2019/20 campaign, unlike his peers who represent title-challenging clubs.
If Southgate were to change his mind as to where he believes Grealish can be effective or if he does find it imperative to find a place for the Villa No. 10 in his strongest XI, perhaps it is Mason Mount who is replaced. On form, the Chelsea midfielder is not challenging Grealish in any key departments.
Grealish, who has been linked with Manchester United, made his Three Lions debut from the bench against Denmark in a UEFA Nations League encounter in September, playing 14 minutes in a 0-0 stalemate. Although it was just a cameo, he was his usual self – running at defenders, causing problems.
He then earned his first start for England in their 3-0 friendly win over Wales last month, in which he picked up an assist and performed well enough to retain his place in the side. Southgate, however, did not use him in either of their next two competitive matches, against Belgium and Denmark.
While it has probably been frustrating for the player and for England fans who believe he can be the team's source of creativity and fun, Grealish's chance is coming, and the odds are that he will take it and become an important part of Southgate's system. Nobody, not even the coach, can continue to deny his potential as one of the country's leading players.