Manchester City, 2021–
Having become the key man for boyhood club Aston Villa and proved his ability on the grandest stage with a string of fine performances for England at Euro 2020, Jack Grealish has taken the opportunity to test himself at the highest level on a regular basis.
After scoring the goal that saved Villa from relegation on the final day of 2019/20, Grealish will leave any chance of a relegation battle firmly in the past as he teams up with Pep Guardiola at champions Manchester City, following the completion of his Premier League-record £100m move. “I am incredibly happy to have joined City,” Grealish said. “City are the best team in the country with a manager considered to be the best in the world – it’s a dream come true to be part of this club.”
Grealish is a hugely talented midfielder who relishes taking the ball and always provides a passing option for his teammates. He is not quite a central midfielder, not quite a traditional number 10, and he certainly isn’t a forward. Instead, he thrives when he is given the freedom to move into whatever position he is most likely to find space and receive the ball.
He was given that freedom at Villa – to roam the pitch searching for opportunities to take passes and quickly look to turn so he is facing forwards. Opponents often track him when he moves into deeper positions to receive from defence (below), because Grealish is at his most dangerous when he has even the slightest chance to turn and face goal. When he is on the ball his immediate instinct is to drive forwards with purpose, taking his team up the pitch as quickly as possible. Villa are often pinned back by their opponents; Grealish is able to relieve pressure on his team by swiftly putting those opponents on the back foot.
He is one of the best dribblers in the Premier League, and he has a low centre of gravity and technique that means he is perfectly balanced as he moves the ball with his right foot, and is therefore able to jink in either direction away from his marker. Sometimes it can seem as if he is moving too slowly and allowing opponents to recover into good defensive positions, but he does so to take advantage of his change of pace. He waits for the opportune moment to quickly change direction and eliminate his direct opponent by bursting past them before delivering a pass or shooting at goal.
He is clearly stronger with his right foot, so opponents try to show him on to his weaker left, but Grealish has improved the detail of his dribbling when moving on to his left – usually the outside because he tends to play on the left. He moves the ball to his left, just out of reach of his opponent, before quickly straightening up with his next touch. That touch takes his path back towards goal, in a direction that means if he can get his body across the defender he is suddenly the wrong side of his opponent, who will often have to resort to committing a foul. Grealish is naturally slightly off balance when he does this, and he has become a master of winning free-kicks in these situations, drawing a nudge or a clip from his opponent.
In 2019/20, Grealish set a new record for being fouled the most times of any player in a Premier League season, winning 167 free-kicks at a rate of nearly five per game. Incredibly, he broke the previous record with nine games of the season remaining. There may be times when he appears to go down slightly too easily, but he also gets himself into positions where defenders have to take evasive action more than any other player in the top flight.
Role for Aston Villa
Grealish usually played on the left of Villa’s front three, though there were also occasions that he started in central midfield or as their number 10. Wherever he plays, though, he likes to drift out to the left flank and looks to get on the ball in space on that side of the pitch.
His aim when he gets there is to move off the flank and combine with a central player (above), before looking for a return pass that gets him on the ball and facing goal on the wrong side of the opposition's midfield. This is the position which Grealish wanted to get into as often as possible, and precisely the situation that Villa’s opponents wanted to avoid, because this is where Grealish is at his most dangerous.
With Grealish bearing down on a defender, opponents are stuck with a big decision to make: move out and engage Grealish – and risk him skipping past the last line of defence – or keep backing off in the hope that a midfielder can recover and get goal side of him. Grealish is such a threat that in these situations he often draws more than one opponent towards the ball, and he is then capable of spotting a free teammate and picking them out (below).
He could, however, do with improving his shooting in these situations. If he was more of a threat on goal with a shot from the edge of the box, defenders would almost always have to close him down rather than back off. He does not score many goals from outside the area, and if opponents had that extra aspect of his game to worry about, he would be in an even stronger position when charging towards goal, largely because it would almost always mean he would get a shot off – either from distance or after beating any defender who closes him down.
Another area in which Grealish may need to improve is his off-the-ball movement. At Villa, he was the talisman and the player through which all their attacking play went, and he could have exploited that by making more selfless runs which draw opponents away from key passing lanes. Improved movement could help make him into an even more effective attacker in a team like City's, where there will be plenty of other threat for the opposition to worry about.
Grealish is a wonderful player who will keep on getting better and has a huge future ahead of him – at both international and club level. It will be fascinating to see how he develops under the guidance of Guardiola.
Author: Tony Hodson