America has the dollar, and Europe has the euro, but if we are talking about the most powerful currency in professional football, then right now, it must be the disrespect. Since the start of this season, the disrespect has arguably been stronger than ever; it seems to be trading at an all-time high. It’s not a countable denomination—there are no advanced statistics to measure it—but it is being doled out in generous quantities. We have seen its use during various stunning games so far: Hoffenheim spent it in lavish quantities against Bayern Munich as they trounced the European champions 4-1, while Tottenham Hotspur flaunted it during their 6-1 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford. Yet if we must identify the most extravagant deployment of the disrespect so far, we must look in the direction of Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish. During his team’s astonishing 7-2 victory over Liverpool, Grealish did many extraordinary things, scoring two times and providing three assists. Yet his most remarkable feat in that match did not result in a goal: It was much more important than that.
Grealish performed it in the first half. Sprinting in from the left flank, he approached Liverpool’s penalty area, where he confronted a barrier against which most attackers’ ambitions usually crash and die: that is to say, the imposing frame of Virgil van Dijk. For the last two years, the Dutch defender has been by some distance the best center back in world football, striding about the penalty area as if it were his own private estate, and so he was probably unprepared for what came next. Perhaps he expected a more deferential form of approach, but that is not what he got. Instead, Grealish swayed right, then sharply left: Then, as van Dijk lurched to follow him, Grealish gently rolled the ball through his legs into the path of a Villa teammate, leaving van Dijk looking as grandly immobile as the Colossus of Rhodes.
October 8, 2020
This image may last at least as long in the memory as the scoreline, and that is because greatness in football, in all of sport, is built upon something far more than mere numbers. It is based upon your aura; the moment you lose that, anyone can get at you. At that moment, Grealish gave the signal that the most imposing member of his opponent’s back line could look briefly human, and forwards around the Premier League and beyond eagerly began to take notes. They will ignore the fact that Liverpool won the league while setting all manner of records. They will instead focus upon how Grealish was confronted by the world’s most imperious defender and treated him like an opponent in a Sunday league game.
In a sense, any team or player looking for inspiration in Tottenham or Aston Villa’s examples will have to ignore it. The statistical dominance of Liverpool and the financial might of Manchester United are such that, if you take the field in awe of them, you have already accepted defeat. However, fortunately for those who wish to see a more competitive Premier League season, teams are showing disrespect in abundance. Another example came in Leeds United’s thrilling 1-1 draw at home against Manchester City, when Kevin de Bruyne, perhaps irritated by the impudence of his hosts, strode to the edge of their box and got ready to deliver a typically devastating pass to one of his forwards. That was when he looked down towards his right foot to discover that the ball was no longer there, a Leeds player having gleefully smuggled it away. It was only right that Leeds should be causing City such discomfort. It was they who had encouraged such unruly behavior on the very first day of the season, going to Anfield and providing not meek submission but a strident display against the defending champions in a 4-3 defeat.
Where, beyond that initial signal sent by Leeds, is all of this disrespect coming from? It is partly a reaction to the manner in which football’s biggest teams have imposed themselves on the sport. They swagger forward, swarming over the territory in the manner of Emperor Palpatine’s First Order, their final aim being the permanent dominance of their realm. Their manner is so overwhelming that the only option left to most of their opponents is swift and highly focused resistance. That is why maybe the most striking figure to emerge from Aston Villa’s win over Liverpool is not the seven goals they scored, but the fact that they scored them with only 30 percent of the possession.
Leicester City pulled off a similar trick to Aston Villa a few weeks earlier, beating Manchester City 5-2 with only 28 percent of the possession, although, of course, they have been pulling off this trick for years. Their Premier League title triumph in 2015-16 was one of the most impressive acts of footballing fearlessness in decades. Instead of sitting back and hoping to gain a draw against the biggest teams, they launched a series of thrilling raids from deep in their own half, led, of course, by those twin princes of disrespect, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy.
Vardy, in particular, has found a natural successor in Grealish. Like Vardy, Grealish is someone whose gifts have long been underestimated in the country of his birth. Vardy spent several years playing lower league football until his sudden surge to fame. Grealish, though his own rise has not been quite so dramatic, has spent a long time being overlooked, which is why at the age of 25, he has still played only twice for England.
As with Vardy, there should be some celebration that Grealish chose to sign a new long-term deal with the club where he made his name. It should not always be assumed that the natural path for a footballer, or for any professional athlete, is brighter lights and a far larger paycheck. There will always be something beautiful about the disrespect, about that moment when a footballer looks at the members of a usually superior team and decides that he will tap-dance around them. It is an instant reminder that the march of footballing wealth is neither relentless nor inevitable, that—if only for an evening at least—hard work, skill, and imagination can emerge victorious. So let’s propose a toast to the disrespect and all the footballing surprises which, in the coming months, it will surely inspire.