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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The wrong kind of impact: Why Jack Grealish has reached a crossroads at Man City

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Pep Guardiola had finished a particularly animated display of pointing to his left when he executed a 90-degree pivot to his right on the spot, like a man intent on proving he did not need a turning circle. Jack Grealish looked mildly bemused. It was the end of Manchester City 0 Arsenal 0 and Guardiola, with the impatience of a perfectionist, had again demonstrated he could not wait until he reached the sanctuary of the dressing room to make his point.

Thankfully, perhaps, few can translate his range of melodramatic gestures to understand the message he was trying to convey. Grealish may still be none the wiser. Guardiola deadpanned his way through his explanation of his antics. “I did it for the cameras, for my ego,” he said sarcastically. “I am the famous person of the team so that is the reason why. Always I try to criticise the players there and let them know how bad they are.”

Deliberately unilluminating as Guardiola’s answer was, it was one of the abiding images of Grealish’s season; in part because, as City enter April, there have been so few others. Even when it seemed Grealish had scored a winner against Tottenham, Dejan Kulusevski popped up with a later equaliser. Some eight months into the campaign, all of his meagre tally of three goals came in a two-week burst in December. His two assists occurred against the might of Sheffield United and Young Boys of Berne. He has started seven league games.

Guardiola approached Grealish after City’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal


All of which is not much for £100m. Arguably the most significant moment of Grealish’s season delayed his reunion with Aston Villa until Wednesday; it may prove a factor in his former club’s qualification for the Champions League, should they return to the European elite for the first time in over four decades. Grealish missed December’s defeat at Villa Park in foolish fashion: he was booked for kicking the ball away against Spurs. It was his fifth caution and, to underline the needless indiscipline, they all came as a replacement, in games he entered in the 87th, 80th, 75th, 59th and 52nd minutes respectively. Too often, he was the wrong kind of impact substitute.

So Grealish could play no part in a game when City were decimated by injuries and suspensions and which was decided by a man, in Leon Bailey, bought with the proceeds of his record-breaking sale. It is not as simple as saying the Grealish windfall propelled Villa to their current prominence: not when, of the three players bought when he left, Danny Ings has already gone and Emi Buendia has missed the season with injury, leaving only Bailey contributing now. But, in an era of financial fair play rules, banking £100m for a homegrown player gave Villa far more leeway than they would otherwise have been afforded.

Perhaps it is missing the point to note that Bailey, with 10 goals and 10 assists, has been more decisive and destructive than a player he replaced. Grealish was only City’s eighth-highest scorer, with a mere five goals in 51 games, in their treble-winning season. He was crucial nonetheless, a staple of Guardiola’s strongest side in a way the more prolific Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez were not.

Yet if he starts against Villa, it will be Grealish, but not as they knew him. He is still the same bubbly character, the man who danced on a table in the dressing room when City won at Arsenal last season or bowed in mock homage to Julian Alvarez when he returned from Qatar as a World Cup winner, but a different player. The free spirit can seem constrained in a tactical straitjacket. If, in part, that reflects a conflict at the heart of Guardiola’s management, a respect for individualistic talents but a wish to reprogramme them and make them fit a system, it also suited City’s shape.

Grealish’s campaign has been disrupted by injuries


Grealish was the world’s most expensive decoy last season, standing on the left wing, stretching the game, freeing up room for others inside. He could retain possession – an 87.5 per cent pass completion rate is very high for anyone operating in the final third – and commit defenders, but then release the ball. He wasn’t the maverick dribbler Villa remembered as much as a cog in the wheel with an idiosyncratic personality. He was the Ibiza hedonist, but only on his days off.

Yet now Grealish feels at a crossroads. He is on the brink of a second poor season – personally, anyway – in three at the Etihad, even if each brings a flood of silverware. His debut campaign was defined in part by the late misses against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu that, coupled with Rodrygo’s even later brace, knocked City out of the Champions League. He was not in Guardiola’s best team.

Now the consensus remains that Grealish is still in City’s strongest side; but that is based on his tactical significance and capacity to retain possession, rather than his form. In February, Guardiola said the gameplan remained the same, the role open for Grealish. “It’s just the way he has performed,” he said, explaining his bit-part role. “That’s the difference.” Then he added: “Hopefully he can do a good last three months.”

Grealish could yet play a part in City’s pursuit of the double-treble


But injury ruled him out of the first of those. Now, with Kevin De Bruyne fit, with Foden’s performances dictating that he has to play, there is a case that the Mancunian should operate on the left. Now, with Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan gone, the shift in the squad means City could do with more goals and assists from Grealish.

Instead, they have had fewer. And while his rationale for leaving his boyhood club was clear: “I’ve always said how much I wanted to play Champions League football – I couldn’t do that at Villa this year,” he said in 2021 – now the chances are that they will be in the premier European competition without him. But, arguably, indirectly because of him.

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