12th May 2022
Though to many he is a national treasure, Jack Grealish is surprisingly maligned and misunderstood, especially on Twitter. The following attempts to clarify what makes Grealish special and the unique role he can play at City going forward.
To understand what made Grealish an irresistible prospect for Guardiola, we need to revisit the 2020/21 season. Still playing for his boyhood club, Grealish was integral. The stand out moment for Aston Villa was a 7-2 victory over reigning Premier League champions Liverpool. To get a sense of Grealish’s style of play for Villa, let’s look at his involvement in the goals of that game: 3 assists and 2 goals!
Watkins @ 4 minutes: a sloppy short pass from Adrian is picked up by Grealish and nudged towards Watkins who converts it with ease.
Watkins @ 22 minutes: Grealish receives the ball at the halfway line on the left. He makes space away from Fabinho and flicks the ball past Liverpool’s high line. Watkins runs onto it, now in enough space to carry it into the penalty area and get a shot off.
Barkely @ 55 minutes: Grealish and Barkely in a skillful 1-2 around the Liverpool defense before Barkley curls it towards the net
Grealish @ 66 minutes: Watkins lays the ball off for Grealish who runs towards the penalty box, cuts towards centre and away from Alexander-Arnold. He shoots and the deflected shot off Fabinho goes in
Grealish @ 75 minutes: McGinn picks out Grealish from the defensive half. Grealish runs forward with pace, carrying the ball into the box for an easy finish.
Grealish has a knack for creating something from nothing, taking advantage of any lapse in concentration, any space available. This has proven fruitful for his teammates. In the 2020/21 season, the two players with the most shot-creating actions (SCA) per 90 were Kevin de Bruyne and Jack Grealish. Shot creating actions encompasses the two offensive actions before a shot is taken, so build up can be measured better.
Last season, Jack had 21 GCAs and 10 assists. For 10 Villa goals he had the penultimate touch, but for 11 he played the ball that preceded the assist - an equally important action that is often key for getting the ball into space.
Unsurprisingly, if a player is responsible for creating chances for their team, they are less likely to finish chances themselves. Last season, Grealish scored a modest 6 goals last season, placing him 51st on the leaderboard, alongside the league’s most talented creator, Kevin de Bruyne. Carries, rather than passes, were particularly important to Grealish’s creation. He has the joint most progressive carries (with Adama Traore) and more carries into the 18 yard box than any other player.
Put bluntly, Grealish is a creator, not a goalscorer. Further to this, his involvement tends to be earlier in the sequence, so we can measure his contribution best by using SCA, as well as assists. Therefore, it would be unfair to say that Grealish has flopped at City on account of his low goal tally.
Nonetheless, there is some evidence that his form has dipped this season. So far in the Premier League, Grealish has 3 assists and 7 GCA, a notable downward trend from his goal creation numbers posted last season. There are two obvious reasons for this.
The first is a lack of game time, through injury and through Pep Guardiola’s signature squad rotation (that will be familiar to many a frustrated fantasy football player). Grealish ranks 15th in the league for SCA, although if you adjust this metric per 90, Grealish comes second, behind only Kevin de Bruyne. It would be too much of a stretch to imply that Grealish would have the second highest number of SCAs in the league if he played more, but there is an indication that his rate of involvement in creating opportunities for his teammates is still very high.
The second reason for Grealish’s dip is simply that he has been unlucky. Expected assists (xA) measures the number of assists a player should have based on the quality of the opportunities they provided for their teammates. If xA is greater than Actual Assists, this is because the player’s teammates have failed to finish off the chances created. Grealish’s 5.8 xA put him 13th in the league, but in terms of actual assists provided, he is only 65th. Once you pass the ball to the player about to shoot, you lose control over the outcome of that pass. It isn’t Grealish’s fault that his teammates aren’t taking advantage of his creation.
Certainly this will not have been a vintage season for him, although I’m sure that a first Premier League title would be much appreciated. Despite his difficulties this season, he has kept doing what he does best. Despite his lack of play time, he is fourth in the league for progressive carries behind teammates Cancelo, Laporte, Bernardo. He is still 1st in the league for carries into the box, at a rate of 4.01 per 90. Notably this is a significant improvement on the previous season, where he achieved 3.29 per 90. Grealish will be just fine, and most likely have an illustrious and impactful career at City.
City did not need to sign another attacking player to win the EPL. They are hurtling towards their 4th title in 5 years. City’s possession based football guarantees them almost total control in league games, exhausting opponents and breaking records all over the place. The focus for players and management alike has been on winning the UCL, a competition that they have had much less success in.
If you regain possession in the middle of the pitch and want to take advantage of the space left by the opponent at the back, Jack’s the player you want to get the ball to. This sort of scenario will happen more often in the Champions League, where the low block (parking the bus!) is much less common. City have and will come up against clubs that they cannot break down with possession, clubs that are fast and adept at getting the ball off them. This is where Grealish can help them out. City cannot guarantee control in the Champions League. Grealish thrives in chaos. He sees the opportunity.
Jack is the joker in the pack, a player that offers something more direct, more improvised. Grealish is the player Pep can bring on in situations where things aren't going their way. Grealish can offer that vital breakthrough in a tight UCL knockout game. His nimble footwork during his cameo appearance in the infamous second leg against Real Madrid exemplifies this. If his shot, cleared off the goalline by some excellent last ditch defending from Mendy, has gone in, the conversation surrounding his debut season at City would be entirely different.
Everybody knows that Manchester City’s first UCL title is coming soon. The media attention next season will be on Haaland, but my money is on a moment of magic from Grealish getting City over the line.
All statistics are from FBref. Current season statistics are accurate up to the 9th May.