English Premier League

Beyond the Numbers: Jack Grealish’s importance to Manchester City

Looking in on a surface level, it would be easy to jump on the hate bandwagon and label Jack Grealish as a “flop” or a “mismatch” to the Manchester City system. As a left winger, his 17 appearances this season have just yielded a solitary goal and 2 assists.

After all, it is not unreasonable to expect more from the most expensive English footballer in history, with Manchester City shelling out the highest fee ever paid (£100 million) by a British club to acquire his services. However, it often seems like Grealish has been reduced to a peripheral figure in a star-studded side, with his offensive output coming under scrutiny on multiple occasions.

Throughout his Manchester City tenure, Grealish has been repeatedly judged based on the goals and assists (or lack of them) that he produces, while finding himself behind the electrifying Phil Foden in the pecking order. However, although the left winger’s numbers might not be impressive, he still ticks many other boxes for the team and arguably does not get the appreciation that he deserves. 

City’s leading cast

Despite the barrage of criticism directed at the 27-year-old, he still has the backing of his manager Pep Guardiola. When questioned about Grealish’s underwhelming form prior to a match against Wolves, Pep’s reply certainly encompasses the faith he has in his winger.

“We didn’t sign for the incredible goals or assists at Aston Villa, it’s about his contribution without the ball and what he can produce for the other ones.”

That wasn’t the first time that Pep has made it clear that Grealish’s output is not his primary concern. Grealish is superb when it comes to retaining possession and carrying the ball forward, drawing defenders into silly fouls in dangerous areas high up the pitch. When City is looking to slow the game down, he does wonders when it comes to recycling the ball and allowing his team to control the game. Grealish also makes aggressive and intelligent runs into the box, which gets him into goal-scoring positions while drawing defenders away for his teammates. Besides, he is also great at 1v1 situations, with his ability to push the ball down the line and swing a cross into the box. 

Beyond the goals and assists, Grealish’s underlying numbers should also be looked at more often. According to WhoScored.com, he has unsurprisingly won the most fouls in the team (an average of 2.1), as well as contributing the second-most key passes per 90 (1.9), triumphed only by the maestro Kevin De Bruyne. Grealish also holds a passing accuracy of 89.2%, which is one of the most important traits of a Pep side.

Even before his move to Manchester City, Grealish has long been the target of cynical fouls from opposition players. It’s not uncommon to see an opponent diving into Grealish recklessly, in turn landing themselves into the referee’s book. This was probably the most evident in City’s clash with Atletico Madrid, where Grealish was the most fouled player (5) across two legs despite only playing 20 minutes. Ironically, Grealish is arguably at his best when he gets kicked all over the show, rattling the opposing team and causing them to lose their cool. Many players simply can’t resist getting a malicious kick in when they see Grealish – playing straight into City’s hands by gifting them with set pieces. 

Importantly, City has never lost a game that Grealish has started this season, with the former-Aston Villa man serving as the glue that holds the team together. Despite his numbers, he has performed really well on multiple occasions this season. The 6-3 demolition of Manchester United stands out, with Grealish wreaking havoc down the wings and producing some beautiful interchange play with his teammates. He also put up a show against Copenhagen in the Champions League, as he swerved past players with ease en route to the Man of the Match award – reminding fans of what he is capable of. 

Reaching greater heights

Despite his improved performances, it is still undeniable that there are still areas of his game that Grealish needs to work on in Manchester City. 

At times, Grealish can be overly-passive when in possession, which significantly slows down the tempo of City’s play when they get into dangerous positions. This is a stark contrast to his Aston Villa self, where he made his name as one of the top ball carriers. Now, he seems to be a much safer version of his old self, where he often chooses the safe option back to fullback Cancelo when faced with a defender on the wing.

There are definitely times when Grealish should hold the ball and retain possession, but there are also times that he could have shifted into another gear by injecting some urgency and directness into his game. There is an onus on him to make much better use of the ball, especially given how he often receives it in good positions with opportunities to hurt the opposition. 

While it might boil down to the positional rigidity and possession-based style of Pep Guardiola, Grealish can still afford to be a little more aggressive and decisive in the final third – something which his manager has spoken about before. Finishing was also an issue for him at times, as his many efforts often seem to elude the net, much to his frustration. 

He did show glimpses of his old, direct self in the Champions League last year, where he dazzled in a cameo against Real Madrid. That night, Grealish seemed to have found a new spark of confidence, as he danced past tired Real Madrid defenders on multiple occasions, forcing a goal-line clearance and a fine save from the goalkeeper. There is no doubt that Grealish can produce magical moments, but he just needs to a little be more consistent and decisive with his play. 

That being said, Grealish still deserves much more credit, with many of his good performances slipping under the radar due to his output. Throughout his career, Grealish has never been and will never be an output-oriented player, but unfortunately, his £100m price tag will inevitably bring statistical expectations from both the fans and the media.  

It is worth mentioning that City’s signings – namely the likes of Joao Cancelo, Mahrez, and Bernardo Silva – all took around a season to adapt to Pep’s methods. Grealish has already had a little more than a year to adapt from Villa’s counter-attacking system to City’s possession-based one, hence now is his chance to silence his critics and show what he’s truly capable of producing.

After all, the sympathy from the faithful will not last forever.

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