When a club pays £100million for a footballer, the fans have the right to expect an all-singing, all-dancing player who wins you matches and shines brightly, even amidst a galaxy of stars. Look down the short list of players who cost nine figures, and they almost all have that special quality teams that sets them aside – Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann – players who are the jewels in the crown of their respective.
The only exception perhaps is Philippe Coutinho, who looked the part at Liverpool but failed to justify his £105m price tag after joining Barcelona – although the way he has revived Aston Villa after Jack Grealish’s departure suggests he is recovering his mojo. Grealish joined the ranks of the nine-figure men in the summer when City activated his transfer release clause by splashing out £100m.
Within weeks, there were grumbles. Outsiders sagely pointed out that City should have saved their money and splurged it on Harry Kane – treating the two transfers as an either/or situation when, in fact, City were pursuing both players. Fans wondered whether the Blues actually needed another touchline-hugging ball-player, already being blessed with Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling – both ahead of Grealish in the England pecking order – Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus.
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The first six or seven months of his career at City were effective enough, without ever being spectacular. His goal by him against RB Leipzig, his by him first in the Champions League, a carve inside from the left and sumptuous finish into the far corner, was a tantalizing hint of the player who had been Villa’s go-to man, the one who made things happen.
But that remains one of just four goals he has bagged so far, leaving him trailing behind every other attacking player in the squad, despite the fact he plays higher up the field than most. A glance at the assists table yields the same result – Grealish has had the penultimate hand in just three goals this season, again leaving him trailing behind Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Mahrez, Jesus, Foden, Kevin De Bruyne and left-back João Cancelo. Even center back Ruben Dias has four.
Those stats have clearly been playing on Grealish’s mind. After his marvelous control and finish to Foden’s arrowed pass at Peterborough for his fourth goal of the season, he said “I expect more, I want to get a lot more”.
The response from manager Pep Guardiola was blunt: “I think he’s not frustrated but if he is frustrated, he is a stupid man. It’s not necessary to be frustrated after scoring a goal. You have to play good, do your best, that’s all. If you score a goal, good, if not, next game.”
Of greater concern to the manager was Grealish’s social life, after he – along with Foden – over-indulged in a pre-Christmas night out, and turning up for training the worse for wear. Both were dropped for the next game, a clear indicator of the manager’s displeasure.
Guardiola has scant regard for statistics as a measure of a player’s ability, even though many top stars are obsessive about the figures. The manager’s point was rammed home in the Manchester derby, another game from which Grealish emerged without adding to his goals or assists tally-but in which his value of him to the team and his style of play was brilliantly evident.
Grealish has looked good before this season – in fact it is not easy to remember him having a bad game – but his role has been largely sacrificial. Premier League defenders know that if you leave a full-back one on one with Grealish and his dancing feet from him, you are asking for trouble. He has the ability to breeze past players without any apparent turn of pace, and deliver a shot on goal or a telling cross to a teammate.
So Guardiola has largely employed him out on the touchline, drawing in a couple of players to create space for others, who he frees with a dinked pass that had become something of a trademark. That role in the team reached its apex in the first half against Manchester United, and never more so than for the opening goal.
Grealish had whitewash on his boots when he linked up with Bernardo Silva in one of many raids down the City left – and there was that deft little pass, as he drew in the bedraggled Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Scott McTominay and then fed Bernardo, who pulled it back for the marauding De Bruyne. De Bruyne registered the goal, Bernardo gets the assist, but the contribution of Grealish was equally valuable.
It was the same for the second City goal. His instinctive flick header left Foden with plenty to do. He did it brilliantly to fashion the chance that led to a game of pinball finally settled by De Bruyne, again. That instinctive link with Foden is starting to become a real facet of City’s play – the two men are close off the pitch as well, and their understanding could be a huge thing for the Blues in the months and years to come. But again, Grealish’s name does not go down in the status’s ledger.
The new boy has also quickly learned that being gifted with a ball at your feet is not enough to get you into this City team – the work rate of Bernardo, De Bruyne, Foden and the rest is demanding to the point of being infectious. Grealish has clearly got the bug, as he proved by hurling himself at the feet of Anthony Elanga, inside his own box, to prevent a big United opportunity after Ederson had saved from Fred in the first half. But that was all a given, what was expected of Grealish, as good as he was.
The second half saw him truly live up to the £100m tag, although he was aided by the fact that City were so dominant that the red shorts may as well have been on training ground mannequins. Grealish was drifting inside, both to create wide-open spaces for the overlapping Cancelo, but also to show what he has to offer in the number ten or number eight role which he could well end up filling.
His surges from halfway were De Bruyne-esque, and the threat he posed to an increasingly bewildered United defense was clear. Grealish has been an important component in this City machine all season, regardless of his statistics, but he has given notice that he has the capability to become just as important as De Bruyne, Foden and Bernardo.
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