Grealish looks for big finish to tough first season at City

To some, he was a luxury signing, adding unnecessary competition in a squad that had a more pressing concern elsewhere.

To others, his arrival was important in bringing, over time, a new dimension to the team’s attacking play.

Seven months on and still there’s no clear winner in the debate over whether Manchester City was right to spend a British-record fee of $135 million to sign Jack Grealish from Aston Villa in the offseason.

The next few weeks, however, could help to sway things one way or the other.

Firstly — and City manager Pep Guardiola won’t like this — let’s look at the stats.

Grealish has featured in 17 of City’s 27 English Premier League games this season, setting up two goals and scoring two himself — in a 5-0 win over Norwich and then in a 7-0 thrashing of Leeds.

In all competitions, it’s four goals in 26 games as part of the attack of one of the most lethal teams in European soccer.

Grealish has said he should be doing better — “at first,” he said a few weeks before Christmas, “I thought I’d have more of the ball, get more assists and goals but it doesn’t work like that at all” — though Guardiola has suggested it would be a “mistake” for the England international to read too much into the numbers.

“Statistics are just a bit of information that we have,” Guardiola said this week, “but there are players that make the team play good and are not in the statistics.”

Grealish has always been one of those players. He’s never been a prolific scorer — netting 32 goals in 213 appearances for Villa, his boyhood club — but more of a creator and an instigator of attacks, pulling defenders out of position to open up space for teammates.

And he has done that for City, if not so glaringly as he did for Villa, where he didn’t encounter as many teams operating with packed defenses.

Publicly, Guardiola is happy with his big summer signing.

“We didn’t buy him to score 45 goals,” the City manager said. “He doesn’t have that quality but he has another one.

“He’s playing good, really. I would tell you if he’s not playing good, but that’s not the case.”

And City hasn’t exactly regressed with Grealish. The team leads the Premier League and is on course to retain the title, even if a rejuvenated Liverpool is pushing hard sitting six points behind with a game in hand. City is all but through to the Champions League quarterfinals and also will be in the draw for the FA Cup quarterfinals on Thursday.

It was a career-changing move for Grealish, who came from being a big fish in a small pond at Villa to operating as one of the many stars of an elite, trophy-chasing side. Dealing with the expectations stemming from the price tag should be factored in, too.

But perhaps the most telling question heading into the Manchester derby against United on Sunday is whether Grealish has established himself as part of City’s best team. And coming toward the end of his first season at Etihad Stadium, that’s still open for debate.

He has started in City’s biggest league games this season, against Liverpool away and twice against Chelsea, and at Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

Yet, currently, he might be behind Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez in the fight for a place in City’s ideal front three, even if Guardiola mostly takes a horses-for-courses approach.

City fans might only see the best of Grealish from next season. And there’s still a chance he comes alive in the final 2 1/2 months of this campaign when all the big titles are on the line. That, after all, is why he joined City.

The technically excellent goal he scored against Peterborough in the FA Cup on Tuesday was a demonstration of his undoubted ability.

But the feeling is inescapable that Guardiola made a mistake in prioritizing the transfer of yet another versatile attacker in Grealish over a center forward such as Harry Kane, who City looked into signing from Tottenham but wasn’t prepared to pay enough.

Just as Kane is hitting his best form this season — see his stunning individual performance in the 3-2 win over City last month — Grealish is still scratching around for his.

Should City get caught by Liverpool in the Premier League title race and fail again to win the Champions League for the first time, the focus invariably will be on how City went into a season without a premium, out-and-out goalscorer to make the difference in tight, big matches.

Instead, Guardiola indulged himself in bringing in Grealish, a player he didn’t really need.

That’s the narrative that could ultimately shape City’s season.


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