Trepidation has been a common feeling among Manchester City fans when it comes to the adaptation of new signings under Pep Guardiola.
That’s not necessarily down to doubts over the players generally, or Guardiola, but rather how those two factors will come together.
After all, it’s been noted for a while now just how common it seems to be for Guardiola’s signings to perhaps underwhelm in their first season at City, only to then kick on and really make an impact in their second season.
While it’s hardly an exact science, numerous players fit into that category; Riyad Mahrez, Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are certainly among them, and there’s even a case to be made that Ferran Torres could qualify given he’s made a solid start to 2021-22 after an up-and-down 2020-21.
Jack Grealish probably wouldn’t have had too many supporters concerned, though you could argue the pressure on him to succeed straight away was far greater and that in itself might’ve been a burden.
Yet his transition from key man at Aston Villa to a similarly central figure has been impressively seamless.
If it ain’t broken…
Much of the focus around Grealish’s £100million move to City centred on where he would be deployed by Guardiola.
There were a lot of suggestions that he was actually set to be tried in more of a central position, perhaps with the idea being to make the most of his ball-carrying abilities.
While Grealish’s name has seemingly been spotted in various starting positions on line-up graphics and the like, he’s still unmistakably been more prominent out on the left flank – 73 per cent of his actions have been localised to the left side of the pitch in the opposition’s half, up from 51 per cent at Villa last term.
Of course, at City he is in a team that spends more time on the front foot and in possession than Villa in 2020-21, so such an increase isn’t exactly a surprise, but it does suggest Guardiola hasn’t tried to make major changes just yet.
Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain was probably Grealish’s trickiest game yet for City – as one might expect.
That’s not to say he played especially poorly, as he did manage to record a couple of key passes, but generally he was frustrated. Achraf Hakimi’s athleticism helped the Moroccan do a good job on Grealish, while referee Carlos del Cerro Grande was rarely sympathetic to the England international.
It wasn’t a huge surprise when Guardiola opted to withdraw him with 22 minutes remaining, but despite that blip, there has been plenty to be optimistic about Grealish’s settling-in period at City.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Grealish’s trademark comfort on the ball has been a particular factor, and his start at City speaks to his own self-belief.
He’s averaging 25 carries (defined as movements of at least five metres in possession) each game in the Premier League, more than any other player, while his total carry distance of 1,787.5 metres is second only to a man who seems to know no other skill, Adama Traore (1,844.5m).
His forays on the ball are helping to drive City forward as well, with Traore (55) and Allan Saint-Maximin (48) the only players to record more progressive carries of at least 10m. The one other City player with more than 34 is Aymeric Laporte.
Additionally, those carries have led to 11 goalscoring opportunities, with three ending in a shot by Grealish or eight leading to a key pass. Again, only five have been more effective with their end product when running with the ball.
To come into the champions’ team and instantly become such an influence is an impressive feat in itself.
More than meets the eye
Of course, some might be tempted to point towards Grealish’s rather modest return of two goal involvements (one goal, one assist) in six Premier League appearances this term, but that would be too reductive.
Having a solitary assist, for example, certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, his 2.9 chances created per 90 minutes is second only to Bruno Fernandes (3.0) in the league, while Grealish’s 0.26 expected assists (xA) each game is bettered by just five players.
It’s also worth pointing out his xA per 90 is greater than his assists per 90 (0.17), suggesting he’s actually being let down by the finishing of his team-mates.
As for his goalscoring efforts, we all know Grealish is capable of the spectacular but his shot selection at City has seemingly been focused on ensuring maximum threat to the goalkeeper, with all but one coming from inside the box. With his shots averaging 0.12 xG as opposed to 0.09 last season, there’s every reason to expect greater long-term results.
Furthermore, there is evidence to support the idea Grealish is slightly more involved in general build-up play as well, his open-play sequence involvement going up from 43.7 per 90 to 47.8 – though City do see more of the ball, so it is probably too soon to make any meaningful conclusions from that.
Nevertheless, it is another example of how Grealish has quickly become a key influencer in the City team. While those early reports of him literally playing a central role may not have quite come to fruition, he has at least in a figurative sense, with Rodri the sole City player involved in more sequences (53.8) each game than him.
It’s already been a hectic period for City, given they’ve faced Chelsea and PSG in less than a week, and it will ramp up again with another big test in their attempts to become early runaway leaders when they face Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.
The following day will be exactly a year on from Grealish’s devastating display in Villa’s 7-2 win over the Reds, during which he had a hand in five goals (three assists, two goals), a haul that has only ever been bettered twice in a single Premier League match.
While no one will be expecting quite an astonishing performance this time, it’s at least evidence of what Grealish is capable of if Liverpool cannot keep him under wraps.
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