Soccer

Jack Grealish: Why Manchester City £100m signing is everything Pep Guardiola wants in a player

One morning at Saebener Strasse during Pep Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich, he was deep in conversation with Juanma Lillo, his long-time mentor, former manager at Dorados and now one of his assistants at Manchester City. Together, they were discussing what they try to spot when watching potential new signings.

“Whenever we go to see a player I always look for what I see as a vital characteristic: that he’s not intimidated by his opponents,” Lillo said, as recounted by journalist Marti Perarnau in Pep Guardiola: The Evolution.

To Lillo, that meant having the courage to receive, retain and use the ball under pressure, and to keep doing so, no matter what rough house tactics the opposition might employ. Guardiola had a similar but slightly different criteria.

“My first question is always, ‘Can this guy dribble?’ I only want players who have that skill so that’s always what I look at,” he told Lillo.

Despite his football philosophy being most closely associated with short, incisive passing and controlling possession, Guardiola believes those are skills which can be taught. The ability to take the ball, carry it forward and beat players if necessary is not as easy to coach, but it is no less essential to his style of play.

Well, for starters, Jack Grealish can certainly dribble.

Last season, no player in the Premier League completed more progressive carries – in other words, when a player takes up possession and moves the ball at least five yards forward or into the opposition’s penalty area – and that is despite Grealish failing to start 15 games due to his shin injury.

Account for that, and only three players in Europe’s top five leagues were more effective at carrying the ball up the pitch than Grealish across Europe’s top five leagues. One of them was Lionel Messi, another was Neymar. It is some company to keep.

Lillo should be happy enough with this £100m British transfer record, too. Grealish might feel a little unsettled if you compliment him on his calves or his hair – as Scotland’s Stephen O’Donnell found to his advantage during the European Championship – but it takes a lot to truly intimidate him.

If there is one thing even the casual Grealish observer knows, it is that he is the most fouled player in the Premier League. And again, if you account for his time out injured by looking purely at the minutes every player in Europe’s major five leagues spent on the pitch, he was the most fouled on the continent too.

And despite all those attempts at provocation, Grealish has of late performed at a level that few players in the world are capable of reaching.

Last season, his underlying statistics made a stratospheric leap and despite his reputation as a romantic throwback to English football’s more innocent maverick era, Grealish is known to closely keep track of his performance levels by taking an interest in such modern age numbers.

That often means measuring himself up to the only player in the Premier League who bettered him for assists, expected assists and key passes during their respective time on the pitch last season: his new team-mate, Kevin De Bruyne.

“I think he is probably the most perfect footballer in the Prem”, Grealish said of De Bruyne earlier this year. The respect is mutual.

As The Independent reported back in November, De Bruyne messaged Guardiola after Belgium’s Nations League meeting with England in Leuven to remark on how impressed he was with Grealish’s performance and that he would make an excellent addition to City’s squad. He needn’t have. De Bruyne was preaching to the choir.

Guardiola was already a great admirer of Grealish – describing him on-the-record as “exceptional” and “one of the best players in the league” – and by the time of De Bruyne’s message, Grealish’s name had already come up during discussions held around the Catalan’s Etihad contract extension.

Guardiola has spent the time since wondering how exactly he would fit Grealish into City’s line-up, were he to join. Those to have worked with Grealish in the past have been peppered with questions.

It has taken some thought, as Grealish is not an automatic fit. His usual role for Aston Villa and England – on the left-hand side of a front three – would appear to be occupied by Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling, who shared that role last season. City have barely, if ever, played a No 10 under Guardiola.

A role as an ‘eight’ alongside De Bruyne has been mooted, reviving the midfield make-up of the 2017-18 title-winning season, which produced the most sparkling football of Guardiola’s five years in Manchester. It may be the most logical place for Grealish to take up. As he revealed last year, it is his preferred position too, and one he excelled at in the Championship.

These are the questions that Guardiola relishes answering, though, and ones he has spent months deliberating over.

Maybe the most interesting of all is how Grealish and Guardiola adapt to working with each other. One has a reputation as an individualist, nonconformist and free spirit. The other is characterised as an ideologue, perhaps even a control freak, whose philosophy dictates that every pass and every move on the pitch is interconnected. But of course, these are oversimplifications.

In Grealish’s case, a move like this to another top six club could have come much earlier in his career had he wanted it to. That is, in fact, one of the qualities that Guardiola admires the most about him: that he sacrificed his own career’s progression for the collective, staying loyal to his boyhood club by dropping down to the Championship with them then dragging them back up again.

And even if Grealish has displayed certain maverick tendencies on-the-pitch, Guardiola has never rejected his type of player outright. Some have struggled with his methods – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, being the most notable example – but others like Riyad Mahrez have adapted without losing much of their idiosyncrasies and ultimately blossomed.

There is no reason why Grealish cannot do the same. He can dribble, he is not easily intimidated, and over the past year he has reached a level of performance that, of all the players in the Premier League, only one of his new team-mates can match.

It may be tempting to look at this nine-figure move – the most expensive in English football’s history – and wonder whether Grealish is really needed at City, or whether he and his new manager are a good fit. Yet in many ways, he is everything that Guardiola has been looking for.

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