Despite becoming Premier League champions of the 2020/21 season, Pep Guardiola made sure to strengthen Manchester City and secure new signings that could help him maintain the lead and hopefully guide the team to the desired Champions League title.
The Citizens are known for their distinguished attacking style of play, which has led to total domination over most of their opponents. Last season, though, was different for Guardiola’s side. They didn’t have the expected start, but their mid-season transformation and increased defensive efficiency are what led to their achievements and finishing right above the city rivals Manchester United.
The team lacked the attacking explosiveness of their previous campaigns and had their worst goalscoring record of the last four seasons. The departure of the club legend Sergio Agüero to Barcelona made the future of their attack more uncertain, and it was clear that despite being top of the league, the manager needed to find a new addition to the squad.
Guardiola’s answer to the decreased numbers and efficiency was breaking the Premier League transfer record and bringing in Jack Grealish for £100m from Aston Villa. The Englishman is expected to increase their productiveness in front of the goal through his creativity and technical skills.
What were City’s needs
As mentioned, City had the worst attacking record of their last four seasons, scoring 83 league goals, which is way lower than their 2017/18 campaign when they scored a PL-record 106 goals. That wasn’t only a result of decreased shot accuracy, but also failing to create as many opportunities as they did previously. Producing 15.05 shots per 90 is their lowest average number of the last five seasons, and while they finished the season as the top-goalscorers, their attacking performance wasn’t up to the usual standards.
The team needed a player who can increase their creativity in the final third by offering additional passing options, exploiting spaces and providing a direct threat too. Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden were providing threat from the wide areas, but the team needed an additional creative output to distribute the frontline with through balls, smart passes and to drag opposition players out of position.
Apart from the creativity, City needed a player who could step up and convert chances into goals. Someone with an ability to hold onto the ball and with strong decision-making, who can dribble past defenders and shoot. The champions also needed a player with positional flexibility who can make positional changes and move around the final third to create combinations with his fellow attackers.
Obviously, for Guardiola, the players’ actions off the ball are equally as important as their skills on it, as he relies on intelligent footballers with a strong spatial awareness and positional sense.
The team needed an efficient ball-carrier who could break pressing structures and defences and provide more options in the advanced areas. To fit into the manager’s style of play, the new addition had to support the ball progression, but also provide a threat to the goal.
Is Grealish the solution?
No matter what position Grealish plays, he constantly moves off the ball and seeks opportunities and empty spaces to receive the ball. He is capable of dragging players out, releasing pressure and creating chances. With his dribbling abilities and change of pace, he successfully contributes to ball progression and helps the team to retain possession. His positional sense and creativity make him suitable for a few different roles – as number eight, as number ten and as a left-winger.
Grealish can change the dynamics of the attacking actions. He is successful in his positioning and provides more options in the final third. The Englishman would most frequently occupy the half-spaces, but he would also go out on the flank and move back centrally into a No. 10 position, improving the connection between the lines and involving the frontline. His movement is key in ball progression and for delivering the ball to the advanced areas
The City attacking players are constantly making rotational changes, and Grealish would certainly move around, providing passing options and quality balls to his teammates. His link-up-play ability could be great for combining with the advanced full-backs to progress the ball through the wide areas, then using his control and work under pressure to create chances.
His progressive runs could help the team to neutralize the opposition’s first two lines of defence and deliver the ball to the edge of the box. There he could either spread it out in efforts to engage defenders and create gaps or could combine centrally with one-touch combinations with the forwards. His dribbling abilities make him an efficient ball carrier and allow him to retain possession.
His movement improves the other players’ influence on the game. The Englishman’s presence in behind and his movement off the ball are crucial in releasing the press and retaining possession. Apart from delivering the ball to quality areas where the forwards could take advantage and score, he could also be a great passing outlet against low blocks where the team need to put extra effort to move between the opposition’s lines.
The threat that he possesses often draws the opposition players out of position and opens gaps. That would be very valuable for City, who have the quality to exploit these gaps and create goalscoring opportunities. His goal contribution at Aston Villa, a far less threatening side, was rather high, which boosts the expectations for his efficiency at City, due to the quality players he will be surrounded by. Another advantage of his arrival is that he has already played alongside Sterling and Foden for England, which would make his integration process way easier and successful.
A possible partnership with Kevin De Bruyne could also be exciting and increase the creativity levels immensely. They both have a great passing range and are proficient in providing key passes to dangerous areas which sounds like double trouble for City’s opponents. They could complement each other’s movement well and set each other up in front of the goal. Grealish’s crossing abilities shouldn’t be underestimated either. That provides an additional threat and could allow his fellow attacking players to overload the box and respectively will increase their chances to score.
Another positive aspect of the 25-year-old’s style of play is his ability to win fouls for his team. He could provide an additional set-piece threat as he was the most fouled player in the Premier League last season. His ability to judge a situation and get the most out of his opponents’ movement and actions would increase City’s chances in front of the goal.
His impact at Villa was crucial. Last term he scored six goals and assisted 10 more to captain the team to 11th place in the league. The limitations of Villa’s strategy and his teammates should be considered, as he is expected to flourish in a better environment where he could express his creativity and move around much more.
What does the data say?
We used some data to summarise the player’s strengths and underline his involvement in certain areas.
While Grealish does focus more on providing quality balls to his teammates, he possesses a direct threat to the goal too. With his 1.94 shots per 90, he often threatens the opposition. Most of his shots and goals have come from the penalty area and more particularly the left half-space which the 25-year-old exploits frequently. With so many distinguished passers at City, it will be no surprise if his average numbers increase and he would have better support in the final third.
His 2.9 shot assists on average clearly show his willingness to create chances and support his teammates’ movement. Whether it is a simple short pass, a cross or a well-measured through ball, Grealish is always looking for quality ways to deliver the ball to goalscoring positions.
His dribbling ability helps him in holding onto the ball and sustaining pressure. With 8.08 dribble attempts per 90 and a 70.8% success rate, he was one of the best dribblers in the league in the 2020/21 campaign.
He often drops deeper to pick up the ball and then advance it, which he does perfectly through 5.72 progressive runs on average. His runs could fit perfectly to Guardiola’s dynamic style of play.
He averages 2.17 crosses per game which shows that he could be equally valuable centrally and out wide. His positional versatility offers way more options in attack.
He suffered 4.12 fouls on average last term which is an additional benefit in the final third.
Many would agree that Jack Grealish is a wonderful addition to Manchester City’s squad. He often seemed limited at Aston Villa and he deserved a better platform to show his quality. It is expected that the player would fulfil his full potential in a team full of talent, creativity and intelligence.
Pep Guardiola definitely knows how to influence a player and develop his qualities, and for a player with talent like Grealish, it would only be a matter of time to see him at his best.