Aston Villa manager Dean Smith has called on Premier League referees to help protect his “targeted” captain Jack Grealish.
Following Villa’s promotion to the top flight Grealish has become the most-fouled player, with Smith speaking up after witnessing the treatment handed out to the attacking midfielder during Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Manchester United.
Grealish has already missed two league games this season after taking a whack on his calf from a challenge during the 3-0 defeat at Manchester City, which led to a heavy bleed.
Asked whether he would like to see Grealish given more protection, ahead of Villa’s visit to Chelsea on Wednesday night, Smith said: “I certainly would.
“There was a bit of a tag team on him (at Old Trafford). When somebody gets targeted then they certainly need a lot more protection.”
Smith is not surprised at the way Grealish has become the focus of attention for opposing players looking to stop his mercurial runs.
“You are going to target top players, and he is getting targeted,” said Smith.
“I expected him to be the most fouled. He protects the ball so well, his balance is exceptional, he is a great ball carrier, and he does give defenders problems.
“It seems to be they want to foul him around the halfway line before he gets any further. We certainly got four or five of them at Old Trafford in the first half an hour.
“If you watch the last few games he has played for us, you can see he has been at a very high level. Teams will try to stop that.”
It is one of the reasons why Grealish eventually played in a more advanced role against United.
“If they foul him further up the pitch then we’ve got great set-piece routines, and great set-piece takers,” added Smith. “It gives us more of a chance to go and get a goal.”
A hallmark of Grealish’s character is that he does not react to the treatment meted out to him, which Smith claims is partly due to an unusual pursuit when he was younger, as well as through learning from other great playmakers such as Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
“It’s part of their DNA,” said Smith.
“He got chinned by a Blues fan (when a Birmingham supporter ran on to the pitch during a Championship game last season) and that didn’t seem to bother him either!
“He gets whacked all the time but just gets on with it. I think he sees it as a prize that they want to kick him.
“I know he played Gaelic football growing up as a kid, and it’s a tough sport. He probably had a few whacks and he’s learned how to deal with it.”
Smith will be without winger Anwar El Ghazi due to a knee injury sustained at Old Trafford, but midfielder Jota returns after a two-month absence following hernia surgery.