Jack Grealish might never put up the kind of cold, hard numbers that justify his status as English soccer’s first 100-million-pound player. (More Football News)
For Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, weighing up the impact of Grealish goes far beyond simply counting up his goals and assists — though they are obviously welcome.
It’s the control and balance Grealish brings to the City team which really stand out and it’s why, at the moment, the England winger is Guardiola’s go-to guy amid a turbulent period on and off the field for the club.
City resumes its bid for a first Champions League title with a round-of-16 matchup with Leipzig, which hosts the first leg on Wednesday.
Grealish was never a lock to play in these kind of big matches in his first season at City following that 100 million pound (then $139 million) move from Aston Villa in the offseason of 2021. Indeed, in the team’s run to an agonizing elimination by Real Madrid in the semifinals, Grealish played in just two of City’s six knockout-stage matches — both times as a second-half substitute.
Now, he appears to be one of the first names on Guardiola’s team sheet.
Grealish has started in City’s last seven games in the Premier League and the last nine games in all competitions, having cemented his place on the left wing. His goal output remains modest — three in 28 games, all in the league — but two of them have come in the past month and in big games against Manchester United and Arsenal.
It was notable last season how tentative Grealish was at times, maybe afraid of making a mistake and primarily concerned with retaining team shape out on the left.
Now he is attacking the opponent’s area more, being more bold with his dribbling and making late runs into the box off the ball.
And it’s not been lost on Guardiola, who has been impressed by Grealish’s improved “ambition and aggression.”
“His commitment to take a risk and important decisions right now makes the difference,” Guardiola said. “He has to continue (doing this).”
His ability to retain and recycle the ball has always been strong and, according to teammate Bernardo Silva, “helps us breathe.”
For City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, it has been important for Grealish to forget about the critics and focus on adapting to City’s way of playing under Guardiola. Grealish was the main man at Villa, but is just one of many top players at City.
“People look at the stats all the time but he does very important things for us,” De Bruyne said. “We’re winning a lot of games and he’s a big part of that.”
Grealish might have some more competition on the left, however, as Phil Foden is back in favor after missing matches since the World Cup because of concerns about his fitness and form. Foden made his first start in a month in the 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest, a match that saw Grealish set up the goal by Silva.
Still, Guardiola’s front three of Grealish, Erling Haaland and Riyad Mahrez looks set in stone for the big games. Grealish said a big part of his decision to move to City was so he could play in the Champions League and he is finally getting that opportunity.
Christopher Nkunku made an appearance as a second-half substitute against Wolfsburg in the German league on Saturday, for his first game since sustaining a left knee injury in training just before flying out to the World Cup with France.
The forward is expected to be on the bench again against City, though fellow attacker Dani Olmo remains out with a hamstring problem.
It’ll be Pep vs. Little Pep in Red Bull Arena.
Leipzig center back Joško Gvardiol is nicknamed “Little Pep” because of the similarities of his last name with that of City’s manager.
Gvardiol, a Croatia international, was one of the best defenders at the World Cup and might be treating the Champions League as something of a shop window ahead of a potential move at the end of the season.
Leipzig, which is fifth in the German league and has lost only once in its last 20 games in all competitions, has pedigree in the Champions League after reaching the semifinals in 2020. Last year, the team lost at City 6-3 in the group stage and won the return match 2-1 when City was already sure of advancing.
City lost in the Champions League final to Chelsea in 2021 in the team’s best run in the competition.