JACK GAUGHAN: Pep Guardiola barely drops him, his team-mates love him and he’s proving decisive in Man City’s biggest games… £100m Jack Grealish’s price tag is no longer weighing so heavy
People were still milling around the streets of Islington at a quarter to 11 as Manchester City‘s two coaches were negotiating their first corners on the way home after an evening very well spent.
The players’ bus is unmistakable: a big blue thing with ‘City’ emblazoned across it.
A few young fans saw it approach a zebra crossing and decided they would briefly halt its progress.
They banged on the windscreen, shouting for Kevin De Bruyne and waving inside. Only for a few seconds and then City were off into the night.
De Bruyne will always be the star attraction of this team, a fulcrum who takes football matches away from the very best – something Arsenal found to their cost – but inside the City camp, Jack Grealish is emerging as an integral member of a squad hunting a third consecutive title. They are shouting for Grealish at the moment.
Jack Grealish is proving he is the man of the moment by coming up big for Manchester City
Grealish (right) barely gives the ball away and it is a reason why Pep Guardiola (left) loves him
Now some will ask what has taken him so long, and argue that a £100million record signing should have asserted himself long ago. That is forgetting that Grealish did not set his price – one that had to be paid otherwise Aston Villa simply were not selling. And it is forgetting that settling into Pep Guardiola’s City, with its quirks and unique style, is not an easy thing to do. A human who cost £100m is still a human.
Grealish has admitted his surprise at how difficult he found the transition from having the power of a queen to that of a rook.
The goal at Arsenal, one which opened the game up, was not overly pretty – deflecting off Takehiro Tomiyasu and creeping past Aaron Ramsdale – but a ‘massive’ personal moment, he said.
Those who know Grealish well say that one of his greatest qualities is to move on from something very quickly, although the constant criticism over a lack of goal contributions has weighed unusually heavily on him.
They point to the amount of key passes, or ‘pre-assists’ he has played in the build-up to goals. And they are right: Grealish has been superb for the majority of this season.
Guardiola barely ever drops him, something that has had a knock-on effect on Phil Foden. The pair of them have only started together on six occasions and not in the Premier League since October.
At the crux of his importance is that he never gives the ball away and it was Grealish who puffed his chest out when Arsenal were running over City on Wednesday night.
‘In these types of games you have to keep the ball, two or three touches,’ Guardiola said. ‘We were not able to do it, just Jack. A little bit Riyad [Mahrez] but especially Jack.’
The players are just as effusive about him behind closed doors, recognising that he is a perfect out-ball, always available and adept at carrying it away from trouble.
What Grealish – who scored away at Manchester United last month, albeit in a losing cause – has altered recently is the drive in the attacking third.
Grealish popped up with a key goal to put City into a 2-1 lead away to Arsenal on Wednesday
Team-mates love him and his £100m price tag is no longer weighing so heavy on his shoulders
For a start, he is being urged to gamble more, evident when he helped turn the game away at Chelsea a few weeks back.
Guardiola’s ethos is before reaching that area of the pitch, do not lose it. Once you are in the final third, let your natural talent take over.
Guardiola tells his squad he wants ‘balls’ around the penalty area. Grealish has, in the past, overplayed as to not give up possession. That has changed and he wants the extra responsibility.
It should be the difference between a functional, reliable cog – one respected by his team-mates – to somebody who proves the difference when it really matters.