It’s becoming a seasonal tradition for rumours to circulate about Jack Grealish’s potential departure from Aston Villa. It makes sense — few players have shown the same kind of loyalty to their boyhood club as Grealish when they could so obviously operate at a higher echelon of the game. Amid the backdrop of his intermittent performances for England in Euro 2020, Manchester City seems to be the most realistic suitor for Grealish’s signature.
Of course, his lure for a club like Man City is based on more than his pure ability. With his slick long hair, comically tiny shin pads, and rolled-down socks, it’s hard to think of a player with a more distinct aura and appearance than Grealish.
It’s an image that is only enhanced by his entrancing playing style. He doesn’t run with the ball. He glides with it. He doesn’t control the ball. It becomes a part of him. He doesn’t surprise with his ability. He fulfils the expectation it creates. That combination of physical and technical aesthetic gives him a unique appeal to club owners and supporters alike, a particular enigma no other player embodies.
Still, behind the glamorous image, Grealish is a fundamentally excellent player. He’s blessed with supreme control and the ability to receive the ball at a variety of angles. His vision and passing repertoire are excellent, and his recognition of space and ruthless capacity to exploit it makes those attributes flourish.
He also has a certain gravity on the pitch, partly due to his aforementioned enigma and partly due to his pure ball-carrying ability, which is perhaps best illustrated by how he is consistently the most fouled player in the Premier League. No point trying to stop him if your a defender. Better to hack him down. That’s how dangerous he can be.
Considering all of that, it’s easy to rationalize City’s interest in Grealish. There’s a neat narrative around his potential success there too: stick him into that “free eight” role in their 4-3-3 alongside Kevin De Bruyne, and watch the two of them orchestrate Pep Guardiola’s Champions League-winning concerto.
He has all the attributes for the position, and City undoubtedly have the finances to make it happen. Not a lot of other top clubs seem to have a similarly well-suited tactical role for the Englishman either. It appears to be the perfect fit.
But it’s worth considering that Grealish occupies a highly unique role at Aston Villa. Beyond his special relationship with the fans and elevated status in the dressing room, Dean Smith bases the entire Aston Villa attack around him. Grealish controls the tempo of their play, and his impact is enhanced because the majority of it runs through him.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would likely give him a similar degree of freedom had he come to Manchester United before the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. Carlo Ancelotti, if ever he became Grealish’s manager, would also oblige. These are coaches who are not wedded to a particular form of constructing attacks and are therefore content with giving greater freedom and creative license to their talented players to do so.
Guardiola is not that type of coach. He is the high priest of positional play, where players have to be tactically disciplined enough to remain within a specific zone at a specific time. He doesn’t control to an extreme, players still have the individual freedom to utilize their skills. But it’s within specific parameters — parameters that Guardiola dictates in clear and precise terms. The system is supreme, and players must be willing to be subservient to it.
That philosophy of attack is at complete odds with Grealish as a player. He is an agent of chaos, someone who plays the game spontaneously rather than from a pre-ordained set of instructions. He’s not used to be a component in a larger machine. He’s used to being the central cog from which it operates, and players can’t always transition from being one to another.
Riquelme at Barcelona is perhaps the prime example of that. He was so used to being Boca Junior’s offensive focal point that he struggled to adapt to a more system-oriented approach in Catalonia where he was one among many stars.
Of course, Guardiola mandates nowhere near the same level of control and discipline as then-Barcelona coach Louis Van Gaal. But that fundamental desire to conduct the way in which his team attacks, rather than giving more of that discretion to individual talents, is the same.
Manchester City fans have seen it themselves with Leroy Sane. He obviously did great things for the club, and for a time, looked as though he could end up amongst the best players in the world. But therein lies the issue — it was only for a time. Well before his injury woes, Sane fell down the pecking order of City’s attacking options.
There are a number of reasons for that, but one certainly seems to be that Sane’s slightly impulsive, off-the-cuff playing style never quite meshed with Guardiola. So while the German international did succeed and improve under his tutelage, Sane’s performances were underwhelming in the context of his promise and what his City career could have become. It perhaps points to why he became quite underused by the Spaniard and was eventually sold to Bayern Munich.
City could risk repeating the same mistake with Grealish. If he joined Manchester City, he will almost certainly win silverware and will be taking a step up in the game in terms of status. But whether he will star for them in the way everyone is anticipating is uncertain.
He is used to being the nucleus of Villa’s attack as well as playing in a setup that gives him tremendous creative freedom. He will have neither of those things at the Etihad. So while Jack Grealish could do well for Man City, it may not the ideal place for him to continue his Premier League career.