Sunday, September 25, 2022

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Flak for Jack Grealish is misguided – it serves its purpose for the Manchester City team

Jack Grealish is not a Manchester City player for his goals. At least not primarily. Pep Guardiola made that clear on Friday and not for the first time.

His role is to carry the ball and take defenders with him when the game calls for stretching. Or to recycle the ball when the game needs to be slowed down.

Both elements focus on control and creating space for others, often against the opponent who is 10 men behind the ball.

Overall, Grealish has done very well since that record-breaking British £100m transfer last year.

They’re not swanky, it might not be the action-blockbuster extravaganza people have come to expect from him, but was he ever really that guy? Or was this reputation forced upon him?

Even with Birmingham’s freedom, many of his leaping moments for Aston Villa appeared in the middle third of the pitch and that hasn’t changed with City.

There were at least three occasions at Wolves when quick skill took him away from defenders and over the halfway line. Then he would fall to the ground with the scythe and earn a free kick.

These passages are so common in City midfielders that they are hardly worth mentioning; Grealish does it better than most.

But a goal every once in a while doesn’t hurt and it was obvious what that bumpy finish in 55 seconds meant to him.

“My dad used to say to me every day, ‘Try to get in there, Jack, for those little tap-ins.’ He’ll hum that I have such a small target,” Grealish said. “I tried to do it. It’s nice to walk away with England after scoring a goal and a result.

He wants more and puts himself under pressure, which may be due to listening to the radio or reading social media too much.

On those platforms, the reaction to his performance at Molineux – which came with more aggression in the last third than on a disappointing night against Borussia Dortmund – has been overwhelmingly positive.

Still, intentionally hitting the box and playing regularly was not dissimilar to the performance at Seville recently. However, he failed to score in Seville and his performance has received little credit.

“We work in a time where everyone only talks about goals and assists, but a lot happens in football and we win a lot of games,” said Kevin De Bruyne. “It (criticism) comes with being a very good player.”

De Bruyne also suggested that Grealish’s nationality carries additional verifications. “It’s not about football,” he said. “I understand because they’re English and people tend to be more concerned with what’s happening. Outside of football, they tend to be the focus.

“I feel like foreign players … for example, if you go out at night, we don’t really get checked very often. On the other hand, if an English player goes out… What he does in his private life should not interest anyone but the people.’

De Bruyne’s feelings towards Grealish are characteristically outspoken and carry weight – particularly when it comes to the need to stick to a game plan.

“With all due respect, he’s been to Villa before and sometimes if you lose a game it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “But when we lose a game, it’s different. We have to perform every week. That’s the difference and what he had to adjust to.

“As long as we win the games and he does a good job for us, that’s all that matters. It obviously took him some time to settle in, but he’s doing fine. Be patient, I’m not too worried.’

It will be fascinating to see how the trio of Grealish, Erling Haaland and Phil Foden develop over the coming months.

That combination worked in Spain in the first group game of the Champions League and it worked at Wolves too, where they all scored three goals.

Haaland now has 14 goals in nine games for City – 11 of them in the Premier League – offering a whole other dimension.

“We have the best striker in the world who’s just obsessed with scoring goals and being in the box,” said Grealish. “It changes all our games compared to last season.”

Haaland’s goal, City’s second goal of the afternoon, owed a lot to Grealish. He needed to win a 50-50 challenge on the touchline to get City into action and did so by nodding forward to flick a ball inside. A few seconds later, Haaland hit with his right foot from the edge of the box.

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