Question: Who is Manchester City’s most valuable player this season?
Easy answer: Erling Haaland, right?
The Norwegian may be demolishing goalscoring records, but there is an ongoing debate as to how much the Norwegian has improved City’s all-around attack.
Alright, so what about Jack Grealish? Yes, you read it right.
City have a Premier League win rate of 77.8 per cent when Grealish appeared this season (14 wins from 18 games), compared to just 33 per cent (two of six) without him.
But how is Grealish making City a better team?
Last month, the 27-year-old Grealish described Aston Villa’s tactical adaptation to Manchester City as “much more difficult” than he expected.
“I came to City having been at (Aston) Villa all my life, and I never had to change. I didn’t realize how difficult it is to adapt to a different team and coach,” he added.
“A lot of teams tend to sit against us and that was not the case at Villa.”
Using data from smarterscout, which rates players from zero to 99 by breaking down the elements of a footballer’s game into different metrics of performance, skill and style, we can gauge Grealish’s evolution as a Premier League winger.
At City, he dribbles more than average and receives passes upfield at a rate comparable to his time at Villa, although his biggest downfalls have been in chance creation and shot volume – in other words, the final product. Instead, Grealish has improved his game defensively.
For most wing players, declining end product would be an alarming trend, but Pep Guardiola doesn’t use wingers like most. He wants them to take a lot of touches, draw opponents in and control the pace of the match, knowing when to speed things up or slow them down. Off the ball, there is an emphasis on defensive contributions.
Take the role of Grealish in City’s first goal at RB Leipzig, with a lot of pressure.
Leipzig builds with a defense of four and a double pivot, which City presses with a forward of three. Grealish is on the left, set up to pressure the centre-back or full-back.
But goalkeeper Janis Blaswich plays with Xaver Schlager…
… who finishes off a pass to central midfielder Konrad Laimer, which Grealish finishes off…
…then dribbles inside and passes a pass to Ilkay Gundogan, who finds Riyad Mahrez to score.
Grealish’s assist for Haaland at Leeds United in December is another example.
City are defending mid-block and pounce on Liam Cooper’s pass, accelerating with a strong first touch.
One on one against goalkeeper Illan Meslier, Grealish blocks the pass to Haaland for a touch.
“I want him to score goals and assists, and so does he,” Guardiola said after Grealish scored the opener in City’s win over Wolverhampton Wanderers last September.
“But it’s not about that, it’s about his contribution without the ball and what he can produce for others.”
Guardiola has been privately frustrated with Grealish because he has always wanted him to be “more aggressive” in one-on-one situations, attacking the full-backs and creating danger rather than fearing losing possession.
“Play like you do in training!” was the message, and Grealish has listened.
But there is a balance and Grealish’s calm and hold on the ball are especially important to Guardiola as he seeks to integrate Haaland’s directness.
Grealish’s assist on Bernardo Silva at Nottingham Forest last weekend shows why.
He recovers Phil Foden’s corner kick but parries the cross early (red arrow).
In the space of five seconds, he makes six touches, twice placing the sole on the ball, and finally passes to Bernardo. It is true that the Portuguese scored a marvelous goal: Grealish did not create a great chance or eliminate any Forest player with the pass, but he showed composure under pressure.
Guardiola wants his tall, wide wingers to stretch out opponents and hold down opposition full-backs, creating space for City’s creative central players. Grealish’s pass-receiving heatmaps from this season and last exemplify that.
City have regularly played in a 3-4-3 formation, fielding two defensive midfielders behind two number 10s (white dots) in a boxy midfield. The ailerons (yellow dots) provide the width.
Guardiola has not used a conventional left-back in 2023, effectively playing Grealish at full-back without the overlapping full-back he “always had” at Villa. Guardiola played Bernardo in a bigger role away from Arsenal and played Mahrez at number 10 with Kyle Walker at the right winger against Leipzig, but he has consistently used Grealish as a left winger.
Grealish’s final product has improved significantly after the World Cup, where he made five substitute appearances and scoring once for England. He has two goals and five assists in 982 minutes (all competitions) since the restart, compared to one goal and no assists in nearly 900 minutes against Qatar.
Away from Arsenal earlier this month, Grealish attempted and completed the most dribbles (four/four) and progressive carries (four) of any City player. His 222 dribbled yards were nearly 90 more than second-oldest Rodri (133).
That was not an isolated event. In multiple ball-carrying metrics, related to dribble frequency, duration and success, Grealish outperforms Mahrez and Phil Foden. His status as one of the hardest players to ignore is well deserved, as opponents often have to foul Grealish to halt his progress.
We see this late in City’s draw at Leipzig.
Grealish receives high and wide from Nathan Ake but does not look for Gundogan’s run beyond defense…
…instead, Grealish dribbles inside, holds the ball for seven seconds, and passes to Mahrez. Retained possession.
Away from Arsenal, these dribbles were made along the touchline, minimizing turnovers and pushing City down the field.
“In these kinds of games, you have to keep the ball, two or three touches, under pressure you have to keep it,” Guardiola said after the 3-1 win in north London.
“We couldn’t do it (keep the ball) today, just Jack and a little bit of Riyad, but especially Jack.”
Grealish understands this and knows that he will see less of the ball than at Villa. In north London, he put City 2-1 up thanks to his tall and wide positioning in preparation. At Villa they looked for Grealish —his talisman— as soon as possible, but at City it is the final pass.
Bernardo plays Haaland after a turnover in midfield, with Grealish in right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu’s blind spot.
Grealish blocks the back post as Haaland finds Gundogan inside…
… and the German midfielder pushes the ball to Grealish, in space, for a shot at the first touch.
A similar pattern occurred with Grealish’s game-winning assist away to Chelsea.
City building through the tercios with Grealish and Mahrez high and wide (yellow dots). They have been Guardiola’s first-choice wing pair in 2023, starting eight of 15 games together in all competitions since the World Cup.
Guardiola’s ‘Grealish-Mahrez plan’ isn’t pretty, but it wins games
Notice how deep Chelsea’s full-backs are, creating space for Rico Lewis to receive a line-breaking pass from Manuel Akanji.
Once again, City play from right to left, with Grealish holding wide to receive into space…
…and, with one touch, finds Mahrez at the back post.
His chance creation map shows many of these passes: cuts from mid-space into the box or deeper box, and many short passes to recycle possession just outside the penalty area, resulting in speculative shots.
Kevin De Bruyne (0.49) is the only City player to top Jack Grealish in expected Premier League assists by 90 (0.28). The England winger is a fan of that metric as he doesn’t take set pieces.
What Guardiola wants from a player usually goes against what most spectators would expect, as evidenced by the absence of substitutes against Leipzig.
With Grealish, the wider football public wants, or anticipates, the Villa Grealish – running the game but with the kind of goals and assists you’d expect from a City player.
Instead, he has adapted, demonstrating ball retention and controlling pace, maintaining his position and getting others into play. This may not generate goals and assists, but it is precisely what Guardiola wants.
He has also heard Guardiola’s frustrations with taking the safe route too often; His final product since the World Cup shows that that has changed.
If that continues, everyone will be happy. Especially Guardiola.
(Top photo: Matt McNulty – Manchester City FC via Getty Images)