Grealish no longer the toast of Wembley as Man City's £100m man eases into new reality

By Sports Desk August 07, 2021

A tight game at Wembley in the English summer of 2021 and a spot of clock-watching and bench-watching to see whether Jack Grealish might come on. It's basically become a national past time.

Of course, this was the more sedate setting of the Community Shield between Leicester City and Manchester City, whose freshly minted £100million man was among the substitutes, and not the febrile passion pit of a push for Euro 2020 glory. More the sort of occasion that might cause you to happily wave a sparkler around rather than stick a flare somewhere unmentionable.

Not that the men on the touchline were taking this lightly. Pep Guardiola, fairly remarkably, managed to get booked as he did during the 2019 version of this fixture. He disagreed volubly after referee Paul Tierney penalised Cole Palmer for an aerial challenge on Leicester full-back Ryan Bertrand.

Shortly afterwards, Brendan Rodgers responded to a botched Kasper Schmeichel clearance by booting a water bottle towards the grey London sky.

Grealish had been merrily volleying balls around with his new team-mates during the warm-up, which he closed by thundering a 40-yard strike just over the top corner before being the last player off with an arm around City youth-team captain Tommy Doyle.

The price-tag certainly isn't weighing too heavily right now for a man who looks as if he lacks a single care in the world, even if his public approval ratings have taken a hit.

 

Wembley laid on universal adoration for Grealish and his velvet touches while playing for Gareth Southgate's England. Here, the booing from the Leicester end felt a little more edgy than pantomime when the ex-Aston Villa captain appeared on the big screen before kick-off and again when he sauntered into a gentle jog and some stretches early in the second period.

By that stage, a Leicester side close to full-strength – although lacking Wesley Fofana after the broken leg he suffered on the end of an awful tackle from Villarreal's Fer Nino in midweek – had enjoyed the edge in terms of clear chances. Zack Steffen made two close-range saves, the second particularly excellent, to deny Jamie Vardy, who played with his typical verve.

As the hour passed, it was certainly a contest worthy of Guardiola and Rodgers' investment. Teenage winger Sam Edozie grew into the match for the Premier League champions, buoyed by three goals in three pre-season outings. Ilkay Gundogan slashed off target inside a crowded penalty area, as did Riyad Mahrez when through on goal, naturally to much brouhaha in the Leicester end.

Then, in the 64th minute, some activity on the bench. Grealish thumbed through a tactics clipboard far less weighty than any encyclopaedia, threw on his white match shirt and joined Rodri on the touchline. The Manchester contingent roared and further barracking followed from the other end of the stadium.

 

With his first involvement, English football's former unity candidate dribbled easily past Ayoze Perez and laid off to Rodri. A few seconds later he was down the left flank and won a throw in a dangerous position, before a Palmer pass allowed him to advance into the Leicester area, where he was crowded out.

In the 70th minute, Grealish returned the favour with a delicious outside-of-the-foot pass, although Youri Tielemans was back to thwart the youngster. It demonstrated the space that was being opened up by two opposition players going towards the British record signing every time he collected the ball. The damage the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden might do in such conditions when they return is a chilling prospect for the rest of the league.

Bernardo Silva was rapturously welcomed for potentially a farewell City appearance and the midfielder's introduction allowed Grealish to rove – a pirouetting dribble in-field ended with him tumbling to the turf and left Tierney unimpressed.

The official had a simple call when he pointed to the spot in the 87th minute. Nathan Ake blotted a solid afternoon's work by bundling Kelechi Iheanacho over and the former City striker thumped his spot-kick past the impressive Steffen.

Wembley fate sealed from 12 yards as you watch on. The more things change, eh Jack?

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    Grealish left boyhood club Aston Villa for a British record £100 million fee ahead of the 2021-22 season as he joined Pep Guardiola's already impressive wealth of attacking riches.

    The England international has since made his Champions League debut, scoring against RB Leipzig in September, while featuring regularly for City in the Premier League until suffering an injury on international duty with England earlier in November.

    Grealish, who might be fit to face his former club on Wednesday, conceded the task of European football, and adapting to his new club, has been far more challenging than expected.

    However, he in no way regrets his decision to swap Birmingham for Manchester.

    "You only get one shot at your career and it just flies by," Grealish told The Telegraph. "I feel Villa are going towards that [Europe] but I just didn't know how long it was going to take for us. 

    "If I hadn't come here, I would have regretted it forever. I remember hearing Michael Owen say the same about Real Madrid.

    "You look at most of my England team-mates – I was probably one of the last to play [in the] Champions League. You could probably count two or three who haven't, such as Kalvin Phillips or Sam Johnstone.

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    "I've got so much more to give. I've found it a lot more difficult than I thought I would, adapting to a different manager and team-mates. 

    "At first I thought I'd have more of the ball, get more assists and goals but it doesn't work like that at all. I've had nowhere near as much of the ball as I used to get at Villa."

    Grealish has started in all of his nine appearances in the Premier League for City, who are a point behind leaders Chelsea after 13 games, but, as he explains himself, he is seeing less of the ball as a part of Guardiola's remarkable depth of attackers.

    Grealish attempted 4.53 dribbles per 90 minutes in the league for Villa last term, which has reduced to 3.39 with City and this may have translated into his final output.

    With Villa, he scored or assisted every 137 minutes, a figure that goes up to 248 this term with just one top-flight goal and two assists to his name.

    He managed six goals and 10 assists in 26 appearances last season, creating 3.34 chances per match and shooting 2.06 times. Again, this falls to 3.15 for the former and 1.94 for the latter with the reigning champions.

    Grealish also revealed he came close to joining City's neighbours Manchester United in 2020.

    "I was really close to going, but nothing happened in the end," he said of the potential United transfer. "We played United in a pre-season game on [the] Saturday and I wasn't supposed to play in a cup game at Burton. 

    "But after the United game I said to [Christian] Purslow [Villa's chief executive] and my agent [David Manasseh] 'if I'm not leaving, I'll sign my new contract'.

    "I went in with my dog on Tuesday morning, signed the deal, and played later that day. We all agreed on the clause and if any team hit that, it's a win-win because it means I've had an unbelievable season and Villa got £100 million."

    Reiterating how difficult it was to move on from his former club, Grealish added: "You can't imagine how hard it was for me to leave.

    "I was a bit surprised by some of the backlash when I left. I'd never want a toxic relationship with anyone there. I owe everything to them and I wouldn’t be at City without Villa.

    "If I score, I'm not going to be celebrating. At the end of the day, I'm Jack Grealish from Solihull who loves the Villa."

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    Pep Guardiola praised Jack Grealish for "starting perfectly" at Manchester City but is unsure if the playmaker will be fit to feature against former club Aston Villa on Wednesday,

    Grealish has featured in 15 of City's 21 matches since joining the club from Villa in a £100m British record transfer from Aston Villa in August, starting 13 of those.

    The 26-year-old was an unused substitute for the derby win over Manchester United on November 6 and has not played since due to a knock sustained on England duty.

    He returned to training on Monday and will be monitored ahead of Wednesday's clash at Villa Park, where he spent 20 years – seven as a first-team regular – prior to joining City.

    Grealish has a lot of work to do in order to repay his hefty price tag, but Guardiola has been pleased with the attacking midfielder's impact thus far when fit and available.

    "He has started perfectly," Guardiola said of Grealish at Tuesday's pre-match news conference. 

    "It's easy because of our English players and the other guys here are nice people. He's played good but needs more time to settle." 

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    "December is the toughest month of the year for us and we are in trouble because we have so few players available."

    Wednesday's match at Villa Park will be the first managerial encounter between Guardiola and new Villa boss Steven Gerrard.

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    Gerrard has won his first two Villa games since arriving from Rangers – no manager in the club's history has won their first three matches – and Guardiola is expecting a tough test in the Midlands.

    "He's managing in the Premier League, so he is already a good manager," Guardiola said. "I don't believe there's a manager in the Premier League, even the Championship, who isn't good. 

    "They can train good players in good clubs to punch for the titles. There are incredible managers in all aspects and maybe they win titles because they are lucky to train a good team.

    "I can imagine with a new manager everybody steps forward for training sessions and methodology to convince the manager. 

    "They have had two good results against tough teams like Brighton and Crystal Palace. It will be the toughest game possible tomorrow."

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