While Aston Villa continue to struggle in their first season back in the top flight of English football, one man in claret and blue has been taking the Premier League by storm.
Jack Grealish has been among the outstanding performers in the division as a whole, but still remains without a cap at international level, despite now being 24 years of age.
And while that is surely due to change in the coming months as manager Gareth Southgate assesses his EURO 2020 options, there’s a strong case to be made that the flamboyant midfielder should be a guaranteed England starter at the tournament the summer, rather than merely scrapping for a place in the squad.
With seven goals and five assists to his name, Grealish is the leading English midfield contributor in the division this season, despite playing for a side who have floundered in and around the drop zone since it began.
And it’s not just quantity – take a look his highlights package and you’ll see a man at the very peak of his powers that is starting to specialise in spectacular strikes.
The truth is though, for those who watch him week in, week out at Villa, that Grealish brings so much more to the table than the occasional wondergoal.
Witness him slalom through challenges, releasing the pass just as the defender commits, or driving his team forward from the back with deceptive pace and power, and the only conclusion to draw is that this is a unique talent that England just cannot afford to squander.
The Brummie-born playmaker’s leadership qualities also make him a tantalising prospect in a Three Lions shirt, and although many Villa fans’ eyebrows were raised when Dean Smith made him captain in the latter stages of last term, he has shown himself to be an inspiring skipper – a notion that seemed far-fetched during his occasionally controversial formative years.
So, who’s he up against to break into the England setup?
James Maddison is a frequent comparison, and has enjoyed a stellar season with Leicester City.
However, although the pair’s eye for a pass and penchant for a long-range strike bear some similarity, their roles are different, and a lot of supporters would like to see Southgate find a way to utilise them both.
Another Premier League breakout player has been Chelsea’s Mason Mount, someone that the England boss seems to have a strong affinity for having first called him into the squad during a loan spell with Championship Derby County last term.
Mount’s bright start has dwindled since October, though, and on his admittedly brief international outings to date the 21-year-old has flattered to deceive, looking slightly out of his depth and overly eager to impress.
They would appear to be the two immediate challengers for Grealish’s spot; of the rest, Dele Alli struggles to make an impact for England and is possibly suited to a more advanced, ‘second striker’ role, while Ross Barkley appears to have been ostracised from the Chelsea team and, despite performing intermittently well for Southgate in the past 18 months, surely cannot be picked if that remains the case.
Let’s hope Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stays fit; the Liverpool man is always an injury worry, but on his day is arguably the best option if the manager needs a ‘box-to-box’ player with pace and the ability to grab crucial goals.
As for Jesse Lingard? We can (hopefully) assume the England boss won’t go there after a disastrous 2019 in which he failed to register a goal or assist in the Premier League.
It’s almost undeniable that were Grealish playing for one of the ‘big six’, like those listed above, he’d be in line for a starring role this summer.
He’s not afforded the special dispensation that seems to come with those clubs, but his mesmerising displays in a Villa shirt may yet force Southgate to find a place for him in the side.