Jack Grealish had only been back in the Premier League for three months when he attracted a glowing tribute. “An incredible, incredible player,” said the manager whose team had just beaten Aston Villa 3-0.
Invited to discuss Grealish, he enthused about him. “He got offers to move on and stayed there in the Championship and were promoted to the Premier League and defended his club. He's a talented player, he's fast in the final third, his vision, his passes and always creates something. He's an exceptional player."
The caveat that Pep Guardiola added in November 2019 was that he was “too expensive for Manchester City.”
Not now. City’s move for the Aston Villa captain shows a shift in transfer-market policy but also underlines that Guardiola’s admiration for Grealish is nothing new. This is no knee-jerk move but the culmination of a long fascination. “One of the best players in the league,” the Catalan said before his side beat Villa in the 2020 Carabao Cup final. “I’m a big fan.”
The stereotype is that Guardiola wants identikit passers, a team of Xavi clones; actually he appreciates idiosyncratic players. They appeal to both the supporter and the footballing intellectual in him. Grealish has a unique feel: indeed, from his haircut to his tiny shin pads, he even has a unique look. His ball-carrying ability and habit of running at defenders makes him the most fouled player in the division. He is more of a runner with the ball than the cliched Guardiola passer.
Grealish may belong in a tradition with Riyad Mahrez, Leroy Sane and Zlatan Ibrahimovic of different talents who intrigue Guardiola, who have the potential to add another dimension. And yet in one respect he is the belated replacement for David Silva, albeit with a very different profile, on and off the pitch. Part of Grealish’s popularity stems from his exuberant character whereas Silva was City’s silent playmaker, the understated creator.
Part of the rationale for him stems from the prospect of a remarkable double act. Kevin de Bruyne differs from past Guardiola midfielders: his pass completion rate is far lower because his determination to make something happen means he often risks losing the ball. They feel a mutual-admiration society. Grealish revealed that De Bruyne is his favourite player in the division. “Probably the most perfect footballer in the Prem,” he said in March. The Belgian apparently urged Guardiola to sign the Englishman after their two countries met last autumn.
They have something else in common. Grealish seems the maverick throwback, the crowd-pleasing dribbler, but in an era where statistics assume a greater prominence, he is remarkably productive. Grealish’s return of six goals, none of them penalties, and 10 assists in 26 league games last season, gave him a greater combined output than any other winger or midfielder outside the top seven. Go by shot-creating actions per 90 minutes and he ranked second only to De Bruyne in the division. He should help City fashion even more opportunities.
Perhaps Guardiola would want Grealish to get more penalty-box finishes, as Ilkay Gundogan did last season. There is a question if he adapts to City or they to him. It will be intriguing where he features, especially given the competition for places: he can be called a No. 10, like many of City’s other talents. He spent much of the last two seasons on the left, where Phil Foden displaced Raheem Sterling for City last season. He could assume Silva’s old role as the left-sided No. 8, but Gundogan proved prolific there. He may yet be reinvented as a false nine. But they are the sort of tactical conundrums that Guardiola will relish.