What is Jack Grealish? Why Manchester City’s £100m signing is not the player you expected him to be

Grealish’s lack of goals has come in for scrutiny while other areas of his unique game are overlooked

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Tuesday 14 December 2021 12:07
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Behind the scenes: Jack Grealish's first day at Man City

What is Jack Grealish? When discussing the most expensive player in English football’s history, one who transcended English football itself to become a genuine household name over the past year, you should not really need to ask that question. And yet four months into his Manchester City career, it is beginning to feel necessary.

Grealish has only two goals and three assists since his £100m move from Aston Villa. It is not as if he has fallen victim to Pep Guardiola’s rotation policy either, starting 16 of his 19 appearances, playing more minutes than any of the alternatives that Guardiola could pick as part of his front three, barring the exceptional Bernardo Silva. Even the manner of those two goals somewhat reflects the up-and-down nature of Grealish’s start to life at City.

One was a spectacular individual run, tearing through RB Leipzig’s retreating defence in a 6-3 victory, before a step inside and curling shot around the outstretched hand of a helpless goalkeeper. The other, in a 5-0 rout of a Norwich City side who were already bottom of the league after three games, bounced in off Grealish without him knowing much about it, deflecting off a part of his body somewhere between his upper thigh and his crotch.

At the weekend, he had his best opportunity yet to add to that modest tally. Raheem Sterling’s cross from the right beat the Wolves defence, bounced beyond Gabriel Jesus and sat up for an unmarked Grealish at the far post, the goalmouth gaping in front of him. It was an awkward chance but it was a presentable chance. With his left boot open like a sand wedge, he lifted the ball clean over the crossbar.

“One day he'll unlock, he'll score,” Guardiola assured journalists after the final whistle at the Etihad, having substituted Grealish shortly after his miss. Similar questions were asked on Monday, during the press conference to preview Leeds’ visit, and they predictably received similar answers. “He doesn’t have to score,” Guardiola reiterated. The goals are coming, he promised. “Absolutely, not probably.”

Yet until those goals and assists arrive, because of Grealish’s profile, his transfer fee and – not least – his undoubted ability, there will be questions, scrutiny and a constant diagnosis of why exactly he has not started quite as quickly as expected. A common theory is that he is suffering from no longer being the “big fish” he was at Villa, and though slightly condescending in tone, it carries an element of truth.

Only a handful of Premier League players received a higher proportion of their teammates’ passes last season than Grealish, who was the target of one pass for every eight Villa attempted. Under Dean Smith, Villa were a deceptively direct side who became centred around playing the ball out quickly to their one elite-level talent: Grealish. And when he was fit to play, it was a highly effective approach.

But that could hardly be more different to the dictat under Guardiola at City, where possession is of paramount importance and the burden of scoring and creating is shared equally. City hit 129 goals in all competitions last season and yet their top scorer was Ilkay Gundogan, with a mere 17. Kevin De Bruyne did most of the creating, but the rest of Guardiola’s attack chipped in as much as each other, sharing assists around.

Grealish attempts to get a shot away under pressure

This more collegial approach to putting numbers on the boards has had a real effect on Grealish’s play. This season, instead of one in every eight, he is only the target of one pass in every twelve. There are 125 top-flight players who have received a greater share of their teammates’ passes than him this season. He is now a cog in a well-oiled machine rather than its engine.

Should that matter? Given the sheer volume of passes that City make and the healthy share of possession they have, perhaps not. Grealish is actually seeing more of the ball than he did at Villa, receiving possession around 50 times a game rather than the 42 times he averaged last season. Yet what he is instructed to do when he has the ball has changed too, as he suggested in a recent interview.

“It’s weird because I’ve always classed myself as an off-the-cuff player,” he told The Telegraph earlier this month, admitting his goal and assist numbers are a little lower than he’d like. “Last season I was playing left-wing and Dean Smith would say ‘if you feel like it’s right to go inside, I trust you and go and do it’. Here, it’s more structured and completely different. That is what I mean about adapting.”

But if Grealish has taken time to adapt by his own admission, Guardiola is pleased with his performances and his progress. Asked what his marquee summer signing still needs to do, he answered: “Exactly what he is doing, exactly. No more than that… The way he is playing is good… He has been so important for us so far. He’s played a lot of minutes. The reason why we finished first in the [Champions League] group stage and are there now in the Premier League, it’s his contribution. No doubt about that.”

That may sound like rather hollow praise, given that Christmas is a week away and Guardiola is talking about a player whose direct goal-and-assist “contributions” this season can be counted on one hand. But as the manager tasked with extracting the best out of Grealish, perhaps Guardiola recognises something that a lot of the frenzied attention around his £100m player’s lack of goals still misses.

Grealish’s best goalscoring return of his career is the 10 goals he managed in all competitions during the 2019-20 season, his first back in the Premier League with Villa. It is the only time he has reached let alone exceeded double figures, including his years in the Championship. Even last year, during his break-out season as an elite-level player, he was only averaging ever so slightly more per-game before a shin injury cut his campaign short.

Look at his history and Grealish is a goal-every-five-or-six games type of player. Compare that to some of his City teammates. Sterling reached a Premier League century against Wolves, having scored around once every three games during his career. Riyad Mahrez scores around once every three-and-a-half. Phil Foden averages a goal every four. He is also four-and-a-half years Grealish’s junior and already only three goals behind his teammate’s club career tally. So what exactly did City spend £100m on?

That would be the key passes, which Grealish has played more of than any other Premier League player to have played a substantial number of minutes this season. It’s the amount of times he carries the ball into the final third and the penalty area which, again, he has done more than anyone else in top flight. It’s the passes, the dribbles and – yes – the fouls that he wins which lead to shots. Again, this general play has created more shooting opportunities for his teammates than any of his peers across the league.

While everyone has been worrying about a lack of goals that is not particularly out of character, this is the promising body of early work that Grealish has been putting together. Guardiola is right. The end product that many expect should come as his new signing adapts but, even if that process takes a while, there is much more about his play to admire. City paid £100m for all the moments that build an attack, not just the pass or the shot that finishes it.

What is Jack Grealish, then? Maybe he is just a slightly different player to the one everyone thinks he is supposed to be.

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