Losing your talisman is never easy to cope with and it is an especially bitter pill to swallow for Aston Villa at present as their star man has risen through the ranks from the academy to become captain of his boyhood club.
However, Jack Grealish has opted to continue his development with Premier League champions Manchester City after rejecting improved terms to stay at Villa Park and the England international will now get his first taste of UEFA Champions League soccer at Etihad Stadium.
Obviously, Grealish leaving creates a sizeable hole because of what he has brought to the Birmingham outfit both on and off the pitch, but that void is not as gaping as it could have been thanks to some well-considered business which puts Dean Smith's men in a better position than last campaign -- at least on paper.
To say that Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens' upwardly mobile Villa should have qualified for Europe last term is a little too strong, but there is a genuine feeling that had Grealish not been injured for a few months from February then certain results would not have undermined their cause.
Still, to go from the Championship to mid-table after a brief flirtation with continental competition is impressive and even more remarkable when you consider the financial mess that greeted the Egyptian and American co-owners when they arrived in the Second City back in the summer of 2018 and immediately persuaded Grealish to stay in the face of Tottenham Hotspur interest.
Regardless of their beloved No. 10's departure, Villa are now a Premier League destination once again with the ability to beat off significant European competition for the likes of Bailey and Buendia further proof that sporting director Johan Lange and the current leadership have the club moving in the right direction.
To offset Grealish's departure, Villa have moved swiftly and preemptively to ensure that they are largely better off than last season in terms of quality and strength in depth without leaving it until City's $140 million acquisition was finalized to do the bulk of their business.
Adding Danny Ings, Leon Bailey and Emiliano Buendia to a squad already stocked with the talented Ollie Watkins, the capricious pair of Bertrand Traore and Anwar El Ghazi as well as the recovering Wesley arguably makes the Villans a much stronger collective coming into the new season.
34 - Danny Ings' 34 Premier League goals since 2019-20 are bettered by just Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah & Jamie Vardy, while the first two of those are the only players to have scored more non-penalty goals (31). Ace.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 5, 2021
We look at the data behind Villa's new striker on @OptaAnalyst.
In Ings and Buendia, Villa get two Premier League-proven players who can brings goals and creativity to the group while Bailey is a highly rated former teenage prodigy who has shown that he is capable of brilliance with Bayer Leverkusen in a spell of just over four years. All three are still under 30 with a collective 36 goals and 27 assists last season -- albeit in differing domestic tiers.
Of course, there are questions which need to be answered with a fee in the region of $40 million for Ings considered high for the 29-year-old based on his age, injury history and the fact that his Southampton contract was expiring while Jamaica international Bailey's ability to find greater consistency with Villa after leaving an erratic Leverkusen for around $38 million is also a major unknown.
There is less concern over Buendia, who has Premier League experience with Norwich City, but he will still be expected to replicate last season's form for around $45 million which will not be straightforward given that he was leading the Canaries back out of the Championship.
While the trio can replace different aspects of Grealish's game, there is also a lower probability that two or more of them will be out of action at any one moment during the campaign and that was something that had become increasingly problematic with the England star -- especially leading up to UEFA Euro 2020 this summer.
Smith may well deploy his new faces in a rough 4-2-3-1 shape with Bailey and Watkins either side of Buendia, who will play in behind Ings, with a central midfield pairing of John McGinn and Douglas Luiz pushing them on. As Watkins can also play as the focal point of the attack, a 4-4-2 would also not be out of the question, nor a 4-3-3 with El Ghazi, Traore and Trezeguet in the squad.
Multiple goal scorers in attack and a plethora of creative and fast players capable of playing out wide or more centrally allied with last campaign's solid defense with the excellent Emiliano Martinez between the sticks and Villa are well-equipped to push for Europe with the window yet to close.
Room for more
Manchester United's Axel Tuanzebe, Norwich City's Todd Cantwell and Southampton's James Ward-Prowse have all been heavily linked with Villa which suggests that this retooling process is not finished and further enforces the idea that the team will emerge collectively stronger from this.
Should they land somebody like the Saints' captain, that could totally transform the team's potential from set pieces and it would also give Smith another reliable midfielder to compete for a starting role with McGinn and Luiz in the middle of the park, as well as additional leadership with Tyrone Mings likely to take over from Grealish as skipper and Ashley Young's experience in the mix.
History has shown us that clubs losing their talisman does not always spell the end for their ambitions with Liverpool's sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona enabling them to sign Virgil van Dijk who was a key figure in the Reds' subsequent UCL and EPL successes.
A record transfer fee is also no guarantee of success for Grealish. He will now be out of his comfort zone and subject to the incessant demands of perfectionist boss Pep Guardiola who will expect him to adapt to the rigors of playing for a team challenging for every domestic and European title there is with continental competition unknown territory to the 25-year-old.
What is clear is that Villa will now be less reliant on one single figure as was the case with Grealish all too often and a major reason why their European quest fizzled out over the course of the second half of the season with Smith expected to continue his evolution of this side into a real force to be reckoned with.