“It’s great, but I don’t think it fits him like a glove.” That was Michael Owen’s assessment of Jack Grealish’s beginning of life at Manchester City following his £ 100 million move from Aston Villa in the summer.
With only two goals and three assists in his 15 games in a light blue jersey, it is difficult to argue against that judgment at this point, although it is not for lack of trying on the part of Grealish, or Pep Guardiola.
Grealish has played in 15 of City’s 17 games so far this season, missing only a 2-0 home win over Burnley and an EFL Cup win over Wycombe. He has started in all but two of those games. It is worrying that all six times City have gone blank this season that Grealish has played, starting five of them.
Guardiola is clearly a massive fan and prioritized signing Grealish over that of his other summer target, Harry Kane. The arrival of the former Villa captain and the failure to land Kane has meant the consolidation of the forward-less system that worked so well for Guardiola in the second half of the title-winning 2020-21 season.
Jack Grealish reacts to begging for a chance in Manchester City’s 2-0 loss to Crystal Palace
City couldn’t afford to sign Harry Kane (above) and Grealish in the summer
City fans have taken to Grealish and his lively yet silky playstyle, although they might be forgiven for wondering what it might have been like if they had hired Kane instead.
The fact that they were well below Tottenham’s £ 150 million valuation of the England captain was due as much to the transfer of Grealish from City as to the valuation itself.
They certainly could have expected more goals from Kane. Grealish’s tally of two, and only one in the Premier League, is symptomatic of City’s profligacy this season. Of course, most teams can only dream of scoring 20 goals in 10 Premier League games, but for a team with City’s talent and wealth that is below average.
Title rivals Chelsea and Liverpool have scored 26 and 29 respectively in their 10 games, while if City continued to score at the pace they have, they would end the season with 76 goals; their lowest under Guardiola is 80 in 2016-17 when they finished third. .
Therefore, City are not yet clicking into the last third of this season. That’s not an issue unique to Grealish, but his stats confirm it again.
He has created just two “big chances” in nine games, while at Villa last season he was 14 for 26. His crossing accuracy has also dropped from 22 percent last season at Villa to just 12 percent at City. However, arguably that is because City do not have a forward in the area to pass or cross.
Although he also operated primarily on the left at Villa, Grealish’s role has changed significantly now that he’s at City, and his adaptation to that role is probably the biggest factor in his slow start to City life.
Pep Guardiola watches over Grealish during City’s 4-1 win over Club Brugge
Grealish is adapting to a new role for Guardiola that forces him to play tall and wide
Rio Ferdinand summed it up succinctly by debating Owen on BT sport after City’s 4-1 win over Club Brugge on Wednesday night: ‘It has to stay open. It is not what you are used to. He is used to drifting and ghosting in positions to free himself. That change will require understanding … sometimes it takes away the naturalness of your game. It means he’s not out of line and that’s one of the best parts of his game. ”
Once again, this is born in statistics. At Villa, Grealish averaged 38.31 passes per game. At City, he’s only averaging slightly more than that, at 40.78 per game, despite Guardiola’s team enjoying far more possession than Dean Smith’s.
In short, the ball goes through him much less at City than at Villa. As Owen says: ‘Grealish is used to playing for a team where he is the best. Now he is playing with other great players. He needs to be able to trust those players and do things a little bit faster. ‘
Even without a striker, Guardiola’s team is now recognizable to the City we’ve seen for the last five years and their Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams before that. The wingers are kept high and open, doing their damage in the last third by facing their side and looking to make or go to the end of the cuts and low crosses through the area. It has been rightly pointed out that other players who have played this role for Guardiola in recent seasons have also taken time to adapt to this style.
Riyad Mahrez (left) also took time to adjust to City’s style of play after joining from Leicester
Leroy Sané scored just nine goals in his first season at City, before scoring 14 and 16 in the next two. Riyad Mahrez scored 12 in his first season, but four of them came in national cups. In his last two seasons he has scored 13 and 14, with only one in each season in national cups. He has eight of 15 in total this season. Grealish’s career is directly comparable to that of Mahrez and Sane, as both came from teams, Leicester and Schalke, that did not enjoy as much possession as City. They were also used to being given leave to roam like leading men.
Another man Grealish can turn to for inspiration is ironically the main threat to his starting place right now as well. Raheem Sterling scored just 10 in his first season with Guardiola before scoring 23, 25 and 31 in successive seasons, outshining both Sane and Mahrez before their alarming drop in form this year.
There have been signs lately that he is close to returning to his best, albeit after scoring just his third goal in 31 games on Wednesday night. If Sterling returns to his previous levels, Grealish will need to improve his game to make sure he is in the center or right where he plays.
There is some debate as to whether Guardiola is using Grealish in the right position. Although the manager seems committed to selecting him solely as a left winger, Grealish spent much of his career at Villa playing in the middle and is an option as one of Guardiola’s two ‘No. 8s.
However, with Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden all vying for those spots, the competition is fiercer in midfield than anywhere else on the City team. He would probably have to go through an injury crisis for Grealish to be selected in midfield, but Guardiola must not be forgotten. Having done his best to sign him, he would surely do his best to make Grealish a success.
Raheem Sterling (right) could pressure Grealish for a place if he improves his form
Another factor that needs to be taken into account when evaluating the form of not just Grealish, but Sterling, Kane and as well, is the physical and mental impact of England’s run towards the Euro 2020 final in the summer.
While Grealish only played 172 minutes, mostly as a substitute, the vast majority of players who made their way into Euro 2020, including De Bruyne, have understandably started the season slowly. The positive way of looking at that, and of Grealish’s run at City in general, is that things can only get better.
Grealish is far from failing at City so far, he just hasn’t produced the goods that he, Guardiola and everyone else know he’s capable of. The same can be said for City in general, but then they started last season slowly too, and look at how it played out.
At Old Trafford in the Manchester derby on Saturday, Grealish faces a United side that have conceded 13 goals in their last five games. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Grealish’s direct opponent, has had a torrid start to the season, while Raphael Varane is injured, Victor Lindelof has doubts and Harry Maguire is still recovering from his injury.
There couldn’t be a better scenario for Grealish to properly advertise himself as a City superstar here to stay.