Man City has signed the Aston Villa creator for an English- and club-record fee, and how he fits in Pep Guardiolas system is up for debate. But if it works, he can unlock new elements of potential in the clubs attack.
Nobody really believed Pep Guardiola a month ago when he said the budget was tight at Man City and that it might not be able to afford reinforcements this summer. Even at the time it felt like a token gesture, a vague effort to persuade selling clubs to lower their expectations. But Man City has smashed its transfer record to sign Jack Grealish for $139 million (£100 million) from Aston Villa, a record for an Englishman. Before the transfer window closes at the end of the month, it may have broken both records again to sign Harry Kane from Tottenham for $200 million or more.
City has spent a vast amount of money on players since the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008—$730 million net in the past five years alone—but it has tended to buy improving players rather than splashing out on expensive stars. For a club with mega-rich owners, it has actually been relatively restrained; it has spent a lot of money, but it has spent it well. Before Grealish, its record signing was Aymeric Laporte, who cost $80 million when he joined from Athletic of Bilbao in January 2018. Its spending in the last three years, though, has been relatively restrained at just $240 million net. This move, then, represents a major change of policy.
It may be that while fighting charges of having breached UEFAs Financial Fair Play regulations, City decided it made sense to be prudent (although there remains an ongoing battle with the Premier League over alleged financial improprieties). It may be that as the majority of football retrenches, dealing with the fallout from the pandemic, City has decided this is a time when there is value in the market. Or it may be that after yet another near-miss in the Champions League there is a desire for a couple of players of proven quality just to give the side an additional boost.
With Sergio Agüero leaving for Barcelona, there is an obvious need for a center forward, which is why City is in pursuit of Kane, but spending so much on a player like Grealish is intriguing. Since the departure of Leroy Sané for Bayern Munich, there has probably been a vacancy in the squad for a wide forward, but Grealish is a very different player, not a direct runner in the mold of the German at all.
Rather, he is an anarchic dribbler. Only Kane and Manchester Uniteds Bruno Fernandes created more goals than Grealish last season, and only his new teammate, Kevin De Bruyne, created more shooting opportunities. Grealish is prodigiously gifted, a player who excites fans, who seems at times to play to the rhythm of a different age.
That in itself is a concern. If the move works, Grealish will offer City something unexpected, in much the same way Lionel Messi could conjure space for Guardiola’s Barcelona (which is not to say he is anywhere near as good as the Argentine). But there is a danger that Grealish’s unpredictability will mean he is not a fit for City. No coach is so strict about positional discipline as Guardiola, and that is something Grealish has not experienced at Aston Villa. Even for England, Gareth Southgate was concerned by Grealish’s defensive work, something he referred to after the two pre-Euro 2020 friendlies, and which led to his using Grealish sparingly during the tournament.
And there must be a wider doubt. Grealish turns 26 next month, yet he has never played in European club competition. He has started only three games for England, and fewer than 100 in the Premier League. Plenty of players have succeeded after relatively slow or unglamorous starts to their careers, but, equally, City is spending a lot of money for a player who has provided limited evidence that he is cut out to operate at the very highest level on a consistent basis. A key factor in the decision to go for him, it appears, was De Bruyne’s glowing recommendation after Belgium’s victory over England in the Nations League last November.
If he is not a direct replacement for Sané, then where does he play? Guardiola seems to see him as one of the advanced central midfielders, which would add credence to the reports that Bernardo Silva could be sold this summer. Or he could operate on the left, which would perhaps mean Raheem Sterling being further downgraded and/or Phil Foden pulling back into a deeper and more central position.
Either way, the fit is not perfect for a player who, whether playing on the left or through the center, tended to bear the bulk of the creative burden alone at Villa. It took Riyad Mahrez roughly a year to find his feet at City after having a similar level of responsibility at Leicester City. Grealish could be in a similar boat, which seems like an astonishing thing to say for a player that costs $139 million. But City can afford to wait.
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