Premier League English

Jack Grealish in search of old sharp-shooting, gun-slinging self in the OK Corral at Manchester City

Backed up unexpectedly in an intense shootout over the weekend with Crystal Palace, Pep Guardiola was 1-0 down and desperately seeking an equaliser. Then his thoughts turned to his biggest acquisition and most expensive recent buy in the summer window – Jack Grealish. He promptly removed him.

There were only 12 minutes left on the clock when the electronic board flashed on Saturday which saw the exit of the £100m striker from the match against a resilient and effective Crystal Palace. Yup, Grealish had truly been substituted despite the Sky Blues being in urgent need of goals just like when he had been substituted with Manchester City in need of a few goals away at Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool.

Needless to say, in a squad chock-full of quality players, it is no insult to be replaced by Raheem Sterling not only once but twice or by quicksilver Phil Foden, as Grealish has been. Perhaps, given Guardiola’s by now well-known propensity to bench the expensive and the highly – it is not so much how often he has been substituted rather than when and how often he has featured in the starting XI that matters more, in his case. Differing from the cases of talents such as Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez who had been gingerly eased into the team, Grealish has made 12 appearances in the Premier League and the Champions League already to date. That fact notwithstanding, he has also scored and assisted in both competitions and converted his Carabao Cup penalty at West Ham cool as the proverbial cucumber. His attitude has been impeccable although his output, however, still leaves a bit more to be desired lately.

Oddly though, Grealish’s last eight City games have produced only a solitary assist and zero goals. Unfortunately, if the expectations had been that his prodigious return for Aston Villa last season – six goals and 10 assists in the Premier League – is indicative as a springboard to more under Guardiola’s stewardship, that has not happened yet. It is conceivable that he has regressed in that respect in unwittingly shedding some of the razzmatazz individuality that made him an instant crowd-pleaser and try to conform instead to concentrating more on the positional demands of staying high and wide to stretch opponents to show he is a team man instead of sticking to his trademark Villa maverick style of play.

“His positions are always good and he plays really good football perspective,” Guardiola said.

“He creates free men when he has the ball. Every time he has the ball Joao [Cancelo] and Rodri are alone and they can use him or do it the next time so in that time it’s really good. When he gets the ball it always has sense with everything he does. With the confidence and a little bit more time he will be aggressive to take [his] own decisions to score a goal. Step by step, he will get it.”

It is important to remember also that, more than most, Guardiola is certainly not one to judge players on statistics on goals and assists, which is too simplistic for him, given his complex instructions to ensure the importance of every cog functioning smoothly for the entire vehicle to work effectively as one perfectly-lubricated unit.

Grealish has made no small contributions, having played his integral part helping to chalk up slick, emphatic wins in Bruges and Brighton. Most noticeable too is his willingness to adhere to Guardiola’s blueprint that has made some of his influence indirect but pertinent in matches when Phil Foden also shared a starring role. However in the instances when the game-plan had not been forthcoming with goals, Grealish has been known to go off in some tangential spree that relies more on individual, idiosyncratic inspiration, in the hope of conjuring mega-sized rabbits out of nothing. Noticeably, the Villa version of this latter Grealish was obviously more prone to do that than the current City version, due mainly to the venerable puppet master Guardiola controlling the strings.

In two of those matches, Grealish had been installed as the false 9 where he started in the middle at Anfield and, in the other, he was shifted there in the second half against Palace, both seemingly from a possible Guardiola conviction that Foden could be more potent on the left, as was justifiably proven by his amazing performance against Liverpool. The remarkable oddity of this is that Grealish’ record-breaking acquisition seems to indicate that serial award-winning Guardiola apparently sees him largely as a left winger despite Foden possibly laying claim to be the finest at the Etihad. Grealish seems to be floundering as a false nine as Foden, Silva and Kevin de Bruyne are all more adaptable to that role.

At the end of it all, there’s nothing to be anxious about as it’s all attributable to teething troubles which are to be expected. Many others have taken time to adjust to Guardiola’s pressure cooker tactics.

“He’s facing a setback, but he came for four or five years,” the City manager said.

“Step by step, he will get it,” Guardiola is confident.

Perhaps Grealish needs to slot himself in reverse gear a little, just to recall some of the skill, audacity and ‘Billy the Kid’ persona that made him the £100-million man. Possibly, in his eagerness to be a textbook Guardiola player, Jack Grealish has not dared to be the incredibly talented player he actually is.