Graeme Souness is not exactly angling for a job in Manchester United’s recruitment department. Even so, would they have taken note of his comments on Jack Grealish this week?
Grealish has been a long-term target for them, clearly a player that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admires, and the Aston Villa man is a mooted £50million target for them in the window.
They have identified him as an addition that could help them step up another level. Competing for the Champions League places is not enough, and the aim in the summer will be to turn them into a top Premier League side.
Yet Souness is not convinced Grealish can bring that to Old Trafford. During the game against Liverpool on Sunday, he suggested the midfielder lacked intensity.
When asked for his assessment of Grealish, Souness told Sky Sports: ‘He has got quality but do the top teams carry passengers when they don’t have the ball?
‘No – they don’t have players that stand with their hands on their hips when they lose the ball.
‘Everyone rolls their sleeves up to be the first, second or third one to press. That is something that is not in his game right now.
‘I’m not denying he has talent – but for me there’s a big question mark.’
A stat that is regularly trotted out to back up the 24-year-old’s ability is that he is the most fouled player in the league.
He has been fouled 151 times in the 2019-20 season – a huge 45 times more than the next most fouled player, Wilfried Zaha.
It has often been suggested that it means opposition players are worried about him, and decide the only way to deal with him is by means that go against the rules of the game.
Yet Souness saw it another way. ‘When I was a player, I wouldn’t want to be the most fouled player in the league,’ he said.
‘That means I’m holding onto the ball too long. That means I’m not seeing the picture early enough, I’m taking extra touches when I don’t need to.
‘He has ability and he’s easy on the eye, silky on the eye. But, I am yet to be convinced by him.
‘When I was being coached at Liverpool, I was told that I had to make the striker’s mind up with my body movement.
‘I’m making them run where I’m looking to kick the ball. I think someone that gets fouled that much isn’t seeing the picture quick enough.
‘As an old midfield player, would I have liked to play against him? I would have loved to have played against him.
‘He allows me to get close to him, get physical with him. I don’t want to play Paul Scholes, Xavi or Andres Iniesta. They are too quick – they pop it off in one or two touches.
‘I want to play against people like him – he would allow me to mess him around.’
Grealish will have the perfect opportunity to prove Souness wrong on Thursday evening when Villa host United. If he can star in that game, it shows that he has the talent to feature for the opposition next season.
Yet there are fair doubts to be had over whether the Villa man is that standard of player. He has six assists all season, admittedly putting him joint 15th in the Premier League.
But that also means he ranks under Emiliano Buendia and Harvey Barnes, who both have seven. Neither have been touted for big money moves despite impressing.
It also puts him on the same level as Dwight McNeil and Ashley Westwood. Again, it is no criticism of them, just an acknowledgement that they are not being mentioned in the same dispatches.
He is also level with Daniel James, who has been criticised for his recent displays for United.
Admittedly, he has created 82 chances, the second best in the top flight. It could lead to doubts over whether Villa – relegation threatened – have the firepower to convert the opportunities he makes.
Yet only six of those have been touted as ‘big chances’. That actually means that Villa’s forwards are matching up to the quality Grealish provides for them.
While he is providing positions for them to have an effort at goal from, only six of them have been particularly good.
This is not to say Souness is entirely right. Grealish is clearly a talent and impressed at Old Trafford earlier this season. Solskjaer said on Wednesday that he would watch out for him: ‘Grealish scored a fantastic goal (last time we played).
‘There’s been loads said about him and we need to be aware of him, if he’s off the left, middle or right.
‘He attracts players to him but there’s not just one player in that Villa team, there are a lot of them.’
And he has been a talismanic figure for a poor Villa side. He dragged them to promotion last season, the run of form that took them to the play-offs from mid-table entirely coinciding with his return to fitness.
His agent Jonathan Barnett did hint at a move to a big side after insisting his focus was on keeping Villa up: ‘I think as far as his career is concerned, it would be great for him to play in the Champions League and develop his great skills and i’m not sure in which country or where that will be.’
When it comes to his goal of keeping Villa in the Premier League, Thursday night’s game is a perfect stage on which to do it. Help them win, contribute to them finishing outside of the bottom three and he’ll be remembered as a hero there.
On the making a big move front, conveniently enough it is also a great stage on which to audition. Show off in front of Solskjaer and it might just force his hand.
Souness has made it clear. When it comes to Grealish, he has his questions. It’s time for Grealish to answer them.