Mason Mount is relishing the battle for places in the England team, particularly with Jack Grealish and Phil Foden in the long term. 

England manager Gareth Southgate has something of an embarrassment of riches in the attacking positions at the moment, with a host of players thriving at club level. 

Mount has been a key man for Chelsea this term, playing more minutes (2,231) than any of his team-mates, while his 69 chances created is 41 more than anyone else. 

He has been a creative pillar for the Blues, as further evidenced by his 168 passes into the box being by far the most among Chelsea players, while the fact he quickly won his place back after being left out for Thomas Tuchel's first game in charge speaks to his impressive mentality. 

That attitude will surely stand him in good stead not only at club level but also for England, whose creative options seem to be improving with each international window.

 

The advantage that Mount believes he has, however, is his versatility. 

"I am always trying to improve," he told reporters ahead of England's opening 2022 World Cup qualifier against San Marino on Thursday. "I feel like I am versatile and can play in a deeper role and obviously in a more forward role. I'm always learning. I'm still young and I'm still learning. 

"In terms of the formation, we are versatile as a team. In the modern game, you have to be ready to change if the other team are tactically different to what you have prepared for. 

"We are ready for that, definitely. I feel like I can play in any position and I just want to understand, more and more, different positions." 

Elaborating on England's strength in depth, Mount added: "There are so many good players in this team. 

"I've seen Jack and Phil do brilliant things. It motivates me to want to do the same. We all have ambitions to win major trophies, at England and at club level we're all competing to want to do that." 

Of course, Mount's comments help pose the question: can he line up alongside Grealish and Foden in the same team? 

Well, they have done once already – against Iceland in November 2020, as all three started and England won 4-0. 

Mount, occupying a deeper role, did catch the eye as he got the Three Lions' second goal, though Foden and Grealish were arguably more impressive. 

 

Playing from the left, Grealish – whose 75 key passes in the Premier League this season is bettered by only Bruno Fernandes – was lively and created three chances, while also winning 81.8 per cent of his 11 duels. 

Of those involved in three duels or more, only Harry Maguire (15, 86.7 per cent) produced a stronger display, highlighting Grealish's competitive streak in the final third. 

Foden's performance had a similar relentlessness to it, his record in duels identical to the numbers for Grealish, though he was more decisive in attack when on the ball. 

The Manchester City talent scored twice, got an assist and laid on three chances, behind only Harry Kane on four. 

As such, Mount's display could be considered a little less impactful for England going forward. Sure, his 87.8 per cent pass completion rate in the opposing half was good, but none were considered key passes. 

It suggests that, while certainly possible to get all three into the line-up, if Southgate is to persist with his 3-4-3 formation, Mount will be the one shoe-horned into the team. 

With that in mind, it seems likely Mount's greatest strength – his creativity – could become stifled. 

However, with Grealish absent through injury, Mount has another opportunity to stake his claim as a key player in this team – succeeding in that respect will surely be reflected by an elevated status, with England's central midfield often crying out for more creativity in recent years. 

Tottenham bounced back from a dreadful week to keep their hopes of a top-four Premier League finish alive. 

A north London derby defeat to Arsenal was followed by a shocking Europa League exit at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb, but Jose Mourinho's men comfortably swatted aside Aston Villa 2-0 to move to within three points of fourth-placed Chelsea.

The Gunners, meanwhile, produced a stirring comeback to seal a 3-3 draw against West Ham, David Moyes' side giving them more than a little assistance. 

There were also wins for Brighton and Hove Albion and Leeds United over Newcastle United and Fulham respectively. 

Using Opta data, we look at some of the more quirky facts from the weekend's top-flight action.

 

Spurs bounce back from European nightmare

Jose Mourinho demanded a positive response from his side after their dismal Europa League exit to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday and they duly delivered. 

Goals in either half from Carlos Vinicius and Harry Kane sealed a fourth win in five Premier League games for Spurs, while they became the third side to win six consecutive top-flight away games against Villa, after Manchester United (2003-2007) and Liverpool (2011-2019). 

Vinicius has now scored nine goals in his nine starts for the club across all competitions, the Brazilian needing just 12 shots to do so.

That kind of accuracy is familiar to Kane, who has been directly involved in 30 goals in the Premier League this season (17 goals, 13 assists). The England captain is the first player to reach that total in the 2020-21 competition, while it is the first time he has achieved this since 2017-18 (30 goals, two assists).

Villa might point to the absence of the talismanic Jack Grealish as a contributing factor to their poor display. The Villains have a 17 per cent win ratio in the Premier League games without the England international, which rises to 50 per cent when he is in the side.

Hammers give Arsenal a helping hand

West Ham players scored five goals in their clash against Arsenal at the London Stadium, yet David Moyes' side had to make do with a 3-3 draw. 

The Hammers took a 3-0 lead against Mikel Arteta's men, but ended up with just a point after Tomas Soucek and Craig Dawson put into their own nets before Alexandre Lacazette's late leveller. 

It meant Moyes' outfit became the first team to score two own goals in a Premier League game since Swansea (also against Arsenal) in January 2017, while Soucek became the first player to score at both ends of the pitch in the same home top-flight game for West Ham since Frank Lampard against Leicester City in November 1998.

The collapse meant West Ham failed to win after being three goals ahead in a Premier League game for the first time since September 1998 when they lost 4-3 to Wimbledon. 

Following their 3-3 draw with Tottenham earlier in the season, the result meant the Hammers have been involved in two of the Premier League's three three-goal comebacks this season – the most instances in a single campaign since 2010-11 (also three). 

There is nothing boring about them these days. 

Leeds return to Yorkshire with capital gains

Leeds' trips to London have largely been fruitless affairs in recent years, but they returned to winning ways in the capital with a slender triumph over Fulham. 

Patrick Bamford and Raphinha were on target as Marcelo Bielsa's side sealed a first win there in 17 games across all competitions, with their previous success coming in the shape of a 3-1 win against QPR in 2017. 

Bamford brushed off his disappointment at not being included in Gareth Southgate's England squad to become the first Leeds player to score in four straight league appearances against a single club since Luciano Becchio against Middlesbrough between 2010 and 2012. 

Joachim Andersen had given the Cottagers hope of securing at least a point when he joined Bjarne Goldbaek and Claus Jensen as the only Danish players to score for the club in the Premier League. 

Raphinha brought home the bacon for Leeds, though, scoring his sixth goal since his first top-flight start in November – only Bamford has scored more (seven) in that period.

Magpies' rotten run against Brighton continues

Brighton could scarcely have handpicked more accommodating opponents than Steve Bruce's sorry Newcastle.

The Seagulls' comfortable victory was their second at the Amex Stadium in 2021 – double what they achieved at home in 2020. 

Leandro Trossard, Danny Welbeck and Neal Maupay were on target for the hosts, with the former pair's strikes both coming from outside the penalty area – the first time Brighton have scored two such goals since a clash with QPR in April 2017.

They have now played more Premier League games against Newcastle (eight) without losing than against any other side in the competition, Graham Potter's side winning four and drawing four. 

The Magpies have scored just one goal in those games, with only Sheffield United having faced a side more often while netting just once in the competition, the Blades hitting the back of the net on a solitary occasion in 10 games against Manchester City.

Where will Jack Grealish play his football next season?

It is one of the big questions in English football right now and Manchester City have joined the conversation.

City are reportedly emerging as the favourites to sign the Aston Villa captain.

 

TOP STORY – CITY LINE UP GREALISH SPLASH

Manchester City appear best placed to sign Aston Villa's £100million-rated captain Jack Grealish, according to the Daily Mail.

Grealish reportedly came close to joining Manchester United last year, but the Red Devils could not come up with the funds to seal the deal.

City manager Pep Guardiola is a well-known admirer of Grealish, previously calling him "an exceptional player".

 

ROUND-UP

- Gazzetta dello Sport claims Liverpool have joined the queue chasing Inter defender Alessandro Bastoni, with a reported £43m (€50m) move. European heavyweights Bayern Munich and Barcelona are also allegedly keen on the 21-year-old Italy international.

Tottenham are likely to opt out of exercising the £36m (€42m) option-to-buy Carlos Vinicius, who is on loan at Spurs from Benfica according to the Daily Mail. The report claims Spurs are only willing to pay more than half that amount for the Brazilian.

- Calciomercato says Juventus are considering a move for Arkadiusz Milik, who they have previously been linked with as they prepare for the possible departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala. Juve are reportedly set to revive their interest in Milik, with the Poland international on loan at Marseille from Napoli.

- Football Insider reports that United are plotting a move for Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez amid doubts over star David de Gea and Dean Henderson. They have also been linked with Milan sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Real Madrid are keen to bring back Levante winger Jorge de Frutos to the Santiago Bernabeu, according to Marca.

Matthijs de Ligt was linked with Manchester United before his move to Juventus in 2019.

United have reportedly renewed their interest in the 21-year-old Dutch defender.

Could he end up in Manchester?

 

TOP STORY – UNITED WANT DE LIGT

Manchester United are set to target Juventus centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, according to TodoFichajes.

United were heavily linked with De Ligt before the Netherlands international swapped Ajax for Serie A champions Juve in 2019.

With United reportedly not advancing in their pursuit of Real Madrid pair Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, the Red Devils are eyeing De Ligt.

United have also been linked with RB Leipzig's Ibrahima Konate, Sevilla defender Jules Kounde and Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato reports Paris Saint-Germain are poised to offer David Alaba a €25million-per year deal in an attempt to prise the Bayern Munich star to the French capital. Out of contract at season's end, Alaba has been tipped to join Madrid. Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester City have also been linked.

United have been left alone in the fight to sign Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish, claims TodoFichajes. Unwilling to match Villa's valuation, City have reportedly exited the race for Grealish. The report also says United could sell Marcus Rashford to fund the move.

- Madrid stars Lucas Vazquez and Isco are wanted by Everton, according to Calciomercato. After prising James Rodriguez from the LaLiga champions, Everton are targeting another two players from the Spanish capital, though Milan and Juve are also keen.

- Diario AS reports Madrid are prioritising a move for in-demand Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland. Chelsea, United, City, Juve, PSG, Barca and Bayern have all been linked but Madrid are reportedly shifting their attention from Kylian Mbappe to Haaland.

Aston Villa manager Dean Smith said he will reprimand any potential internal leak after news of captain Jack Grealish's injury emerged well in advance of Sunday's 2-1 Premier League home loss to Leicester City.

Grealish was left out of the Villa line-up due to a leg knock picked up at training, although that became public knowledge ahead of the fixture, leaving Smith irritated by the advantage it may have offered the Foxes.

The England international is a key figure for Villa, having played every league game this season until Sunday, scoring six goals while he is also equal second for most assists this campaign with 10.

"I was made aware on social media there were rumours he was not going to play," Smith told BBC Sport.

"If that is coming out of our training ground I will find out where it is coming from and reprimand whoever it is coming from.

"It is something I would not be happy with."

Wayne Rooney believes Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are too good to be left out of the England starting XI for Euro 2020.

Manchester City youngster Foden starred with a goal and an assist in the 4-1 away win at Premier League champions Liverpool last week.

He is gaining momentum after being handed more opportunities by manager Pep Guardiola.

Grealish, meanwhile, has thrived for Aston Villa this season, establishing himself as one of the Premier League's leading players with six top-flight goals and 10 assists.

Rooney is England's record goalscorer and thinks the form of the two attacking midfielders has become impossible to ignore ahead of the tournament.

"They have to be in the squad and arguably have to play because they are that good," the Derby County boss said about Foden and Grealish.

"Phil Foden has been one of the best players in the league this season, I think Guardiola has managed him really well.

"For Phil, it's about keeping doing what he's doing. He's one of the best players in the league this season.

"Foden is performing excellently — scoring, assisting — and hopefully he can carry that form on with England. He is entertaining to watch. 

"When my lad [Kai] used to go into City, I used to see Phil there.

"I spoke to him a couple of times and I could see he's a very level-headed lad. He was there a lot of the time, but it was just general chat, not me giving him advice.

"There are a few players — not just him. I think Jack Grealish brings something different for the national team."

Foden made his England debut away to Iceland in September but was promptly removed from the squad along with Mason Greenwood for breaking coronavirus protocols.

He responded by scoring a double - his first international goals - in the home match against Iceland in November.

Grealish, meanwhile, has five England caps and manager Gareth Southgate has spoken about the dilemma he faces over whether to play him or Chelsea's Mason Mount.

Manchester City are five points clear at the top of the Premier League after their demolition of defending champions Liverpool last time out.

With Guardiola getting the better of one managerial rival already this term in Jurgen Klopp, City's focus now switches to a clash with Jose Mourinho's Tottenham.

Key to City's superb form has been Ilkay Gundogan, who has scored nine goals this season in the league, three more than his previous best of six from 2018-19.

Given he scored twice at Anfield – while also missing a penalty – it would seem a smart decision for fantasy football managers to back Gundogan again this weekend, though which other players should make the cut?

ROBERT SANCHEZ

Another team in fine form as of late have been Brighton and Hove Albion, who have conceded just one goal in their last five top-flight matches, with goalkeeper Robert Sanchez certainly playing his part.

Sanchez ousted Mat Ryan – now on loan at Arsenal – as first choice earlier in the season, and of all goalkeepers to have played at least 10 Premier League games this season, only Ederson (one every 145 minutes) and Edouard Mendy (114 minutes) have a better minutes-per-goal conceded rate than Sanchez (one every 98 minutes). He has played 12 times, conceding 11 goals.

MATT TARGETT

Going up against Brighton this weekend are Aston Villa, and one defender to look out for could be Matt Targett.

Brighton have not scored more than once in a league match since a 3-3 draw with Wolves on January 2, and Villa left-back Targett has been involved in 11 clean sheets this season – more than any other Premier League defender apart from Ruben Dias.

AARON CRESSWELL

If you are looking for a more attacking option, however, then that player may well be West Ham's Aaron Cresswell.

The full-back has registered five league assists this season, second to only Everton's Lucas Digne (six) in terms of defenders, while only Liverpool's Andrew Robertson (38) and Manchester United's Luke Shaw (36) can better his tally of 34 chances created by a defender.

ILKAY GUNDOGAN

In Kevin De Bruyne's absence, Gundogan has come to the fore for Guardiola's team, and the former Borussia Dortmund man is the highest scorer in the Premier League so far in 2021 with seven goals in eight games.

The German's previous seven goals in the competition came over a period of 62 games, dating back to 2018.

JACK GREALISH

With Brighton's Sanchez in such fine form for Brighton, it could be a tough decision for fantasy managers, especially with Jack Grealish being so prominent in Villa's attack.

Grealish, arguably the league's player of the season so far, has been directly involved in five goals in his last five appearances against Brighton in all competitions (four goals, one assist), scoring in his last two games at the Amex.

PATRICK BAMFORD

Leeds United returned to winning ways as they saw off Crystal Palace 2-0 on Monday, with a trip to Arsenal up next on Sunday.

Patrick Bamford scored Leeds' second at Elland Road against Palace, and he has been involved in five goals in his last three Premier League games, netting twice and providing three assists. Eight of his 12 Premier League goals this season have been away from home (67 per cent).

MARCUS RASHFORD

Another forward who has thrived on the road in 2020-21 is Manchester United star Marcus Rashford.

He has netted eight times in the Premier League this season, with six of those goals – 75 per cent – having come away from Old Trafford. The England international has never scored more in a single campaign on the road.

Manchester City extended their lead at the Premier League summit with a 1-0 win over struggling Sheffield United on Saturday. 

Pep Guardiola's side started the day one point ahead of rivals Manchester United, but finished it three ahead of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's outfit after they were held to a disappointing, if record breaking, 0-0 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. 

Newcastle United turned around their woeful recent form with a 2-0 win at Everton, while Aston Villa won away at Southampton. 

Crystal Palace edged past Wolves 1-0 at Selhurst Park, while strugglers West Brom and Fulham played out an entertaining 2-2 draw. 

Here is the pick of the Opta facts from the day's action in the Premier League.

Manchester City 1-0 Sheffield United: Guardiola's men keep on winning

An early goal from Gabriel Jesus helped City set a new club record of 12 consecutive wins in all competitions.

It is also the longest winning run by a Premier League team since Arsenal racked up 12 in a row between August and October 2007. 

The slender win was also their ninth triumph in January, the most they have ever won in a single month in their history. Indeed, it is the most wins by a team in the top four tiers of English football in a single month since the formation of the Football League in 1888.

The result also means City have kept 20 clean sheets in all competitions this season, which is at least five more than any other side in the top-five European leagues. 

After their shock midweek win at Manchester United, this was a case of normal service resumed for the rock-bottom Blades. 

They have now lost 20 of their last 24 Premier League matches - seven more than any other side in the same period - and have been on the end of eight 1-0 defeats this season. That is the joint-most ever by a side at this stage (21 games) of a top-flight season, along with Ipswich Town in 1985-86.

Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United: Record-breaking stalemate for United

They did not come away from London with all three points, but United can at least toast an 18th consecutive away match in the Premier League without defeat – their longest run without a loss in their illustrious top-flight history.

While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side created the best opportunities, they failed to find the back of the net for a third consecutive league match against Arsenal. The last time they went that long without scoring against the Gunners was between September 1981 and May 1983 when they went four games without a goal.

The result means Solskjaer has now failed to win any of his five Premier League games against Arsenal, with the Norwegian the only Red Devils manager to face the north London side more than once in the top flight without winning a game.

Arsenal, meanwhile, have now kept four consecutive home clean sheets in all competitions for the first time since April 2019.

The draw means Mikel Arteta's side are unbeaten in their past six league games against United – their longest run against the Red Devils in league competition since between October 1980 and May 1983 (also six).

Everton 0-2 Newcastle United: Toffees downed by a familiar foe

Steve Bruce relieved some of the intense pressure he had been under as Newcastle ended an 11-game winless run in all competitions with victory at Goodison Park.

It was no surprise that Callum Wilson was the inspiration behind the win, the England international's brace means he has now been involved in 67 per cent of the Magpies' 21 Premier League goals this season (10 goals, four assists).

His first goal was his 50th in the Premier League, while he has only scored more against West Ham (eight) in the competition than he has versus Everton (six).

The Toffees, meanwhile, have now been defeated in four home league games this season. That is the most Carlo Ancelotti has lost in a single campaign since the 2007-08 campaign with Milan, when he was also beaten four times.

Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson made his 300th Premier League appearance in the defeat to become the second Icelandic player to reach the milestone after Hermann Hreidarsson (332).

Southampton 0-1 Aston Villa: Grealish and Barkley combine to overcome Saints

Villa secured a first win over Southampton in the Premier League since December 2013 thanks to Ross Barkley's first-half goal, laid on by the superb Jack Grealish.

Grealish has now been involved in 15 league goals (six goals, nine assists) in a single season for the first time, eclipsing his tally of last term when he scored eight goals and created six for his team-mates.

Only Harry Kane (11) and Kevin De Bruyne (10) have more assists than Grealish this season, while the last Villa player to register more in a single season in the competition was Ashley Young with 10 in 2010-11.

Dean Smith's side were also indebted to another clean sheet from goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, whose 10th shutout of the campaign is only bettered by City's Ederson (12).

Defeat for Southampton means they have lost three consecutive top-flight matches for the first time since November 2019, while they have also failed to score in five of their past seven Premier League games - they had only drawn a blank in five of their previous 41 in the competition before this.

Former Manchester United captain Bryan Robson would like to see Jack Grealish make a move to Old Trafford.

Aston Villa star Grealish has been linked with the Red Devils in the past 18 months but there has yet to be a concerted effort to sign him.

However, with the future of Paul Pogba unclear beyond this season, talk has again emerged that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could look to Grealish as a possible replacement for the France star.

The England international has created a competition-high 55 goalscoring chances in the Premier League in 2020-21 from only 15 appearances.

The 25-year-old has become integral to Villa's improved performances this term, making 11 per cent of all of their passes and drawing 73 fouls, the most of any player in the division.

Former skipper Robson, twice a league champion with United, thinks Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be making a smart move if he added Grealish to his squad.

"It was a good decision giving [Jack Grealish] the [Aston Villa] captaincy," he told Stats Perform. "I think it's made him a bit more mature.

"He's a powerful player. He's quite a strong boy and he's quick and the way he can sort of go either way past people, he's always going to be a danger and that's why he gets so many free-kicks. Him and Villa have been terrific this season.

"He's been linked with us but those decisions, thank goodness, are with Ole and the board of directors. I wouldn't mind seeing Jack Grealish in a Manchester United shirt. I don't know whether the staff at Old Trafford fancy him, much as you'd like to see him play for your club."

United face Fulham on Wednesday looking for a win that would take them back to the top of the Premier League.

Grealish and Villa are in action away to in-form Manchester City.

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.

Mutual respect

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 revealed 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," he told Sky Sports.

"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 said. "He's somebody I mentioned before, talking to the team-mates 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, Opta data from this season shows Grealish is doing plenty to match the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year.

King creators

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, Harry Kane's fruitful relationship with Son Heung-min helping the England captain to amass 11 for Tottenham.

Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes separates them at the top 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 59 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 being level with De Bruyne on 51.

In terms of assists, Kane and De Bruyne are again one and two from Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (nine) and Roma's Henrikh Mkhitaryan (eight).

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.

Grealish has 81.2 per cent accuracy for passes ending in the final third, outstripping De Bruyne's 73.5 per cent, although the City favourite attempting 105 crosses and corners to the younger man's 51 goes some way to explaining this discrepancy.

In terms of dribble success rate, they are neck and neck again, with Grealish returning 63.8 per cent and De Bruyne 63.

Grealish has attempted 69 dribbles to his idol's 46, which does a little to explain the frequency with which he draws free-kicks.

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. As per Opta, he is responsible for 11 per cent of his team's passes. By contrast, Zaha and Kane make five per cent and Mane four.

As players who cherish the ball so much, De Bruyne and his counterpart 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.

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.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka could be key to Manchester United's chances in the New Year's Day clash with Aston Villa, as he will likely be at least partly responsible for keeping Jack Grealish shackled.

Grealish has been a standout player in the Premier League this season, with their exceptional start to the 2020-21 campaign in no small part down to the attacking midfielder's influence.

Only five teams have scored more than Villa's 28 goals this term, though four have played two more matches than them. The other, United, have played one game extra.

Grealish has scored five and set up six, excelling in his free-roaming role from the left as he has also created 51 chances in the Premier League – Hakan Calhanoglu (53) of Milan is the only player to have played more key passes across Europe's top five leagues.

Of those 51 chances created, 23 have come following a carry, defined by Opta as a movement of the ball that is greater than five metres from where it was received. No other player in the Premier League has produced more than 13 key passes from comparable situations.

 

Grealish impressed against United at Old Trafford last term, scoring a gorgeous goal in a 2-2 draw, and Wan-Bissaka is primed for a potentially decisive tussle with the England international, as the right-back delved into the data with United Review.

"I know he is always up there with getting the most fouls," Wan-Bissaka said of Grealish, whose 65 free-kicks won is comfortably the most in the Premier League. "We all know he’s a tricky player when he's out there on the pitch.

"He is a great player. He's unpredictable and can go inside or outside with the ball. I played against him last season and just have to be ready to take it as it comes.

"It is another challenge I am more than ready to take on, but he's not the only player we need to be paying attention to – they have lots of other good players like John McGinn, Ross Barkley, Trezeguet and others. We know it will be a tough game."

While Wan-Bissaka expects a testing encounter, Grealish surely will not be predicting an easy ride either – Opta revealed on Thursday that the United right-back made the most tackles (96) in the Premier League for a third successive calendar year in 2020.

On top of that, Wan-Bissaka's 50 blocks is a league-high for 2020-21, highlighting the full-back's defensive nous.

"I reckon it's probably down to there being situations where I've needed to tackle but, in that moment, there have been more situations I have had when I have had to block shots and crosses," he continued.

"I know there have been times in football where, if you don't block a shot, it can go in. So, the best thing to do is simply to attempt to block every shot and every cross.

"I know you cannot just dive into any tackle. You've got to make sure you time it right. It is a case of always concentrating and making sure you are timing them right as well.

"It's very good to hear, that I have had no bookings against me this season."

Despite his obvious defensive strengths, there remain plenty of United fans unconvinced by Wan-Bissaka's suitability as the club's first choice at right-back due to his limited attacking output.

He had seemingly improved as an attacking outlet in his first season at United from his days at Crystal Palace, with chance creation up to 0.7 per 90 minutes from 0.4 and open play crosses increasing to three per game from 1.6.

But he is yet to record an assist this season and his 0.3 expected assists (xA) figure further highlights how little impact he has in the final third.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists his Manchester United players are not getting carried away by the prospect of a Premier League title challenge this season. 

Marcus Rashford's stoppage-time winner against Wolves on Tuesday stretched their unbeaten run to nine league games and cranked the pressure up on leaders Liverpool. 

The Red Devils are now just three points behind Jurgen Klopp's side and have a game in hand. 

It marks an impressive transformation in the club's fortunes after a dismal start to the season, which saw them collect just seven points from their opening six games. 

There were three home defeats in that run, including a humiliating 6-1 reverse to Tottenham. 

The 13-time Premier League champions have been a team reborn in recent months, though, and face Aston Villa on Friday knowing they can go level on points with Liverpool ahead of the Reds' clash against Southampton on Monday. 

While Solskjaer is delighted with how his side have improved, he says the hard work has only just started. 

"Well, we had a difficult start to the season with the late arrival of some players," he told the club's official website. "And I think we have shown after the second international break, the one in October, that we have regrouped and come together.

"We are getting fitter, stronger and the squad is getting better. We just have to take one game at a time, move up the table and improve as a team. 

"But we have finished the year strong. I think we have done well since the beginning of February, or end of January, and we have proven to ourselves that we can be consistent over a longer period.

"When you are getting closer [to the top of the table], that gives you a boost and it gives you extra focus. 

"The good thing about this group is that some of them have won before so they are not going to get too far ahead of themselves. 

"We know that the only way to do it is to take one game at a time.

"I know that is quite a boring statement, but that is the good thing about this group; they are not going to think we have cracked it because in any game in this league, you have got to be at it and that's why we have a big, strong squad."

Solskjaer acknowledges his side will have their work cut out against a Villa side who have won three of their last five Premier League games and sit just four points behind United, having played a game less.

The main threat for United will come from in-form pair Jack Grealish and Anwar El Ghazi.

Grealish – who was linked with a move to United ahead of the 2020-21 campaign – is the Premier League's leading chance creator so far this season, with the England international having crafted 51 opportunities, including six assists.

El Ghazi, meanwhile, has scored five goals in his last five top-flight appearances, after netting just four in his first 37 in the competition.

"You can see the improvement of results and also performances, how solid they are – they have conceded one goal in their last five league games and that was against Chelsea – so they have impressed me," Solskjaer added.

"We've met them in pre-season and of course we've kept in touch with them. I have been impressed but not surprised, because they have a squad and a team full of good players.

"I think it is a team performance, of course, but they have made some very good signings. I think Ollie Watkins is one of the centre forwards that you don't like to play against.

"At the moment, El Ghazi is the man in form and scoring every game. I think the whole front line is going to keep you on your toes and they are going to make you defend. 

"Then they are very solid at the back and they are not going to concede goals, so we need a good performance and hopefully we will get one."

Manchester City are reportedly planning a bid for Harry Kane, while United are still interested in Jack Grealish.

City have been linked with numerous forwards amid uncertainty over Sergio Aguero's future.

And it seems the Tottenham star is among their targets.

 

TOP STORY – MAN CITY PLANNING £88.7M BID FOR KANE

Manchester City are planning an £88.7million offer for Tottenham star Kane ahead of next season, according to Bild.

Kane, 27, is contracted at Spurs, where he continues to star, until 2024.

The England international has scored nine goals in 15 Premier League games this season.

 

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United remain interested in signing Aston Villa star Grealish, according to the Daily Mail. The midfielder was heavily linked with a move to United in the close season, but ended up staying at Villa, who are in action at Old Trafford on Friday.

- Eric Garcia has seemingly made a decision on his future. The Guardian reports the Manchester City defender has agreed personal terms on a five-year deal with Barcelona. Garcia is contracted at City until the end of the season.

- With Mauricio Pochettino reportedly set to take over at Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham apparently have worries over Hugo Lloris. The Sun reports Spurs fear the goalkeeper could join former boss Pochettino in Paris and they are eyeing West Brom's Sam Johnstone and Manchester United's Dean Henderson as potential targets.

- Yet to play for Arsenal this season, Mesut Ozil's future remains a talking point. Bild reports the playmaker wants to see out his contract, which runs until season's end, with the Premier League outfit.

- Also coming out of contract, Sami Khedira looks set for a Juventus exit. The Daily Mail reports the midfielder is set to hold talks with Everton over a potential move.

- Struggling for game time at Manchester United, Jesse Lingard has had the one-year option on his contract at the club triggered, according to Sky Sports. Lingard's deal now runs until 2022.

If you were to look through any of the gossip columns over the past couple of years it would not take too long to see the words Manchester United and Jack Grealish in the same sentence.

Were we to take such speculation as gospel truth then England playmaker Grealish has been on the radar of Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pretty much ever since he took the top job at Old Trafford.

Grealish only penned a new five-year deal at boyhood club Aston Villa back in September but, even with the ink barely dry, his name continues to be linked with the Premier League's elite clubs.

A new year it may be but old rumours are likely to persist. With Villa visiting United for their first game of 2021, we take a look at what Grealish could offer to the 20-time champions of England, with the help of Opta data.

MASTER CREATOR

With Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba among the ranks there is no creativity void at United.

Having said that, Grealish's ability to provide opportunities for his team-mates ranks with the best in the division – this term quite literally.

In 2020-21, Grealish has created 51 chances in the Premier League (only Hakan Calhanoglu of Milan with 53 has more in Europe's top five league). That is four more than Fernandes, who is second in England's top flight, while Kevin De Bruyne has created 42 for a Manchester City side not scoring with the regularity they once did under Pep Guardiola.

Those chances have returned six assists, only one fewer than both Fernandes and De Bruyne, while Tottenham striker Harry Kane leads the way on 10.

Grealish is outperforming his expected assists from open play chances (3.67 expected, five in total), as is Fernandes (3.48). His overall expected assists of 4.26 is also the highest in the league (he of course has six in total), with Fernandes just behind on 4.05.

A look back to the start of last season shows Grealish has provided 142 chances in the Premier League, second only to De Bruyne on 178. Since his top-flight debut in February, Fernandes has created 77 – in the same timespan Grealish has 84 and De Bruyne 93.

Aside from Fernandes, whose job it is in fairness to create, United do not have anyone laying on opportunities at anything like the same level as Grealish. Rashford has 29 since the Portugal international's first game for the Red Devils, with Luke Shaw the next highest on 27.

Fernandes does beat Grealish in terms of passes (including crosses) into the opposition box this term (127 to 80), but since the start of last season no United player has more than the Villa playmaker's 297 (the 11th best in that timeframe – although Fernandes outscores him 257 to 172 since his debut).

Essentially, adding Grealish to their wealth of options could mean chances galore for United's forwards.

UNITED TO BENEFIT FROM FOUL PLAY?

Grealish has a reputation – rightly or wrongly – for, how shall we phrase this delicately ... let's say going down a little too easy.

But whatever your perception of Grealish's tendency to hit the deck there is no doubt his trickery, deceptive strength, and control of a football inevitably draws more than a few kicks to the shins.

This season alone, Grealish is comfortably the Premier League's most fouled player on 65, with Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha next on the list with 42.

Going back to the start of last season, the difference is even more vast with the whistle being blown for a foul against Grealish on 232 occasions (Zaha is second, well behind on 162).

For contrast, United's most-fouled player in 2020-21 is Fernandes (21), with Rashford (20) and Scott McTominay (19) not far behind.

In a league decided by the smallest of margins, Grealish's propensity to win free-kicks in dangerous areas has potential to be crucial for a side like United, who have lofty ambitions to win the game's biggest prizes once again.

But don't let the numbers make you think Grealish isn't up for a physical battle. The 145 duels he has won in the top flight this term is the most in the league (one more than Tomas Soucek).

Going back to the start of the 2019-20 campaign, Villa's first since winning promotion, Grealish has come out on top in 434 duels (second only to Adama Traore's 462).

United's highest attacking performer for duels won (Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan Bissaka rank highest with 89 and 71 respectively) in the Premier League this season is Rashford on 70, while Fernandes has 63.

Imagine the space the likes of Fernandes and Pogba could have to operate in if opposition players were battling to get the ball back – often fruitlessly – from Grealish…

CARRYING VILLA UP THE TABLE

The simple act of watching Grealish in action is enough to realise how good he is with the ball at his feet, but the numbers to back this up are hugely impressive.

Grealish has 18 instances of carrying the ball leading to a shot, with only Rashford (19) ahead of him. Son Heung-min (16) and Wilfried Zaha (15) also rate highly.

But Grealish has 23 occasions of following a carry with a chance created – 10 more than Leeds United's Jack Harrison and Traore, who rank joint-second, while Rashford follows alongside Riyad Mahrez with 11.

When combining the two, Grealish has 41 carries leading to either a shot or a chance created – 11 clear of Rashford. Mahrez is next on 23, while Kane, Son and Mohamed Salah are each on 22.

This term Grealish has completed 43 dribbles – the third best in the league behind Traore (53) and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (50). Rashford is United's best performer in this metric on 34.

Going back to the start of last season, Grealish has completed 116 – behind only Traore (236), Zaha (184) and Allan Saint-Maximin (150).

IN SUMMARY…

United are flying high in the Premier League, giving their supporters hopes of a sustained title challenge this season. But there is no denying Grealish possesses traits that could be hugely beneficial to the Red Devils – not least his ball carrying ability, impressive chance creation and the canny knack of winning fouls. Whether United actually make a move for Grealish in January or beyond remains to be seen…

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