Jack Grealish has been one of the best players at Manchester City in recent weeks. Has the attacker, who once cost the Skyblues €117.5m, finally arrived at Pep Guardiola’s team?
Comparisons to English legends like David Beckham were quickly drawn when Jack Grealish joined Manchester City for €117.5million in the summer of 2021. At Aston Villa, the then 25-year-old had played his way into the hearts of many English football fans – and on the notes of some top clubs. In the end he opted for the lush offensive of the Skyblues and Pep Guardiola.
Laughter was raised by those who predicted a crash from the start as Grealish remained a marginal figure in his debut season. In the important games he sat on the bench and even beyond that he was rarely in the starting XI.
In the course of this season, however, his situation has changed significantly. Suddenly Grealish is one of the most important players in Guardiola’s team. With goals against Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and assists against Chelsea and Liverpool, he also showed in the Premier League that he can also play an important role in the big games. He excelled in the 4-1 win against the Reds a few weeks ago. But where does the turnaround come from and what makes the 27-year-old so strong at the moment?
Jack Grealish: The output is finally right
“I think he’s done really well this season,” Guardiola said recently of his protégé: “This is the Jack Grealish that Aston Villa fans know very well. He believes in himself and the way he does it The way he behaved in the beginning when he wasn’t playing was perfect.”
Grealish convinces with great output this season. While 14 goals in 38 appearances isn’t what you’d initially expect from such an expensive transfer, his impact on City’s game has grown significantly. Loud Opta is the Englishman the player in the Premier League who has the most expected assists per 90 minutes (0.28) after team-mate Kevin De Bruyne (0.46). Two chances played out on average are also best within the squad after De Bruyne – he is in seventh place in the league.
At Aston Villa, Grealish was a gambler. Someone who played football with a big heart and who, as the star of the team, was sometimes forgiven for mistakes. At City, this gambling was his problem for a long time. Too often he lost the ball because he wanted too much and increased the risk in the process. In the current phase of the season, however, the impression arises that Grealish has really arrived for the first time. He seems integrated and often keeps his nerve.
This helps him to put his undeniably huge technical qualities to good use. Grealish has his head up more often, plays more deliberately, but does not lose his move to the goal. Against Liverpool he put the opposing defense under pressure several times, but without running into the wall. Trent Alexander-Arnold had no chance against him. “There are moments when the coach doesn’t want me to dribble and keep the ball all the time and play little short passes,” he said afterwards, aptly describing the learning process he went through under Guardiola. At the moment, Grealish is one of the reasons City are in such good form.
Jack Grealish: Higher work rate
But he has also improved against the ball. At the beginning he was accused of going into duels too half-heartedly or even avoiding them altogether. That’s why Guardiola should have preferred other players. For the Catalan, working off the ball is hugely important. In counter-pressing, he needs players who can quickly recapture the playing field.
He leads around 20 percent more duels and can be dribbled out less often. Guardiola also appreciates that. This year, the national player was almost always in the starting XI.
“You can see his work rate, running back, a crisp tackle, just great,” praised BBC-Expert Alan Shearer after the Liverpool game: “You see a player who is happy with his game, who is happy with what is being asked of him in the team.”
Jack Grealish: Expectations vs. Reality
Shearer probably hit the sore spot with that. Because even if Grealish is currently one of the most important City players, as an individual he is not on the level that De Bruyne or Erling Haaland has. The high transfer fee once suggested that he would become the next superstar. One who can carry the Skyblues’ offense.
“When I came here, I’ll be honest, it was a lot harder than I thought,” said Grealish sky in January on his time at City so far: “I thought I would switch to a top team where I would get a lot of goals and assists. But obviously that’s not the case. A lot of teams are very deep against us and that was at Aston Villa not so.”
He hadn’t realized how difficult it was “to adapt to a different team and a different coach”.
The high transfer fee alone was and is due to the fact that the environment had the expectation that the changeover would work within a few weeks. Roughly as was the case with Haaland. But Grealish is a different breed and it’s all too often forgotten that players like the Norwegian are the exception rather than the rule.
Even top stars like Sadio Mané find it difficult to adapt after a change. The leap Grealish had to make was huge. However, Grealish has developed into a better player during his time at Manchester City. “It’s part of learning the way the coach plays,” he said. “It takes time. I feel like I’ve done it now.”
Jack Grealish: A marketing coup for Manchester City
His achievements speak for themselves. And they shouldn’t just please the club from a sporting point of view. Grealish is great for marketing. His most recent outfitter contract with Puma, who want to make him a figurehead, underlines this. The offensive player also entered into a cooperation with Gucci last year – he was the first footballer ever to become a brand ambassador for the Italian fashion company.
Grealish is popular with various companies from different industries and helps to represent the club internationally and let criticism of the owners and the construct as a whole recede into the background, at least for the moment.
In this regard, Grealish is perhaps most reminiscent of Beckham. The English legend was also of interest to his clubs from a marketing perspective, while his status as a footballer was at least debatable. “A guy who plays like Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) and is as gorgeous as Beckham is very appealing to leading brands,” said Ged Colleypriest, who founded Underdog Sports Marketing at The Athletic. This is an independent agency that helps brands, clubs and sports organizations to create networks and partnerships in sports.
Grealish is authentic and that’s what makes him so well known and loved far beyond a football audience. Above all, he reaches a young audience better than almost anyone else. Whether he is one of the best players in the world or just a good footballer in a world-class team is almost secondary.
As with Beckham, it is primarily the glamor factor that plays a major role in the evaluation of Grealish. In terms of football, it probably won’t be enough for the Ballon d’Or or similar awards. But Grealish is still on his way to being a very important player in Manchester City’s squad. The big question is whether the current phase is a snapshot or whether he manages to maintain this level.
If you evaluate the transfer after almost two seasons exclusively as a sport, what has been shown so far is probably not enough. But if the complete package is included, hardly anyone in the Citizens should be annoyed about it. Especially not when he also decides important games like last time.