Pep Guardiola would probably argue that he does not reinvent players so much as provide an imaginative platform from which they can truly flourish within an overarching framework, and it is into this intriguing space that Jack Grealish steps.
The genesis of Guardiola’s many individual pet projects has been one of the great dramas of his managerial career with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City and watching his plans for Grealish unfold should, in theory, be every bit as exciting as David Silva’s refashioning as a central midfielder or Philipp Lahm’s “halfback” evolution. Perhaps all the more so if Harry Kane ends up coming on board at City, too, and Guardiola, with the England captain, Grealish, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling gracing his attack, does half of Gareth Southgate’s groundwork for him in advance of the World Cup finals in November next year.
On the surface, it is easy to see why Guardiola has been drawn to Grealish and been persuasive enough to convince City to shatter the Premier League transfer record to sign him for £100 million from Aston Villa.
Grealish exudes the sort of creative arrogance that appeals so strongly to the Catalan’s sensibilities, and only Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes created more chances from open play in the Premier League last season than the England player, despite him making just 26 league appearances for Villa due to injury.
An attacking midfield comprising Grealish, Foden and the league’s best player, Kevin De Bruyne, is certainly something for City fans to get giddy about, just as opponents may largely dread those days when it is their turn to make the trip to the Etihad.
And yet Grealish, in reality, could require some studious work, which probably holds part of the appeal for City’s manager in the knowledge that if he can draw out fresh dimensions to the 25-year-old’s game and the player can cope, not just with the added demands but the pressure and scrutiny coming his way, the results could be quite electrifying.
Jack Grealish has thrived since Aston Villa's promotion to the Premier League
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
That could be true whether Guardiola opts to play him in a wide left role or more centrally as one of two No 8s, alongside De Bruyne, in a fluid 4-1-4-1 system.
Grealish may have been comfortably the most talented player at Villa, but he has now joined a squad awash with gifts and, as he will discover quickly, if there is one thing Guardiola expects of each and every one of his players – regardless of ability – it is an unrelenting work rate. Nowhere is this truer than of his wide players.
At Villa last season, Grealish played on the left of a front three predominantly, with spells centrally over Christmas and towards the end of the season, but there will be a far greater onus on pressing and defensive work – two things Sterling and Foden do so well – if Grealish is to regularly and successfully occupy that position at City.
Grealish may face a not dissimilar adaptation to Riyad Mahrez in that regard.
Mahrez enjoyed his best season in a City shirt last time out, but his transition from Leicester, where he had won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award after helping the club to the title in 2016, was not seamless. His tendency to hold on to the ball too long and slow City’s tempo frustrated fans and team-mates – De Bruyne was unafraid to show his dissatisfaction in that regard at times – and his defensive work, initially, left much to be desired. Even Bernardo, who could be the one to make way for Grealish’s arrival, struggled at first, despite later becoming synonymous with Guardiola’s midfield prototype.
Few players in the league are adept as carrying the ball over distance and making chances as Grealish – he topped the league’s charts on that front last season – but doing so in the right areas, and striking the balance between that and City’s wish to play brisk one and two touch football, will doubtless be one of the items on Guardiola’s agenda.
Much is made about the number of fouls Grealish draws, but City want the ball in frequent circulation and are not a team who will favour their rhythm being routinely disrupted. The dynamics, of course, will be different if Guardiola elects to utilise Grealish mainly as a No 8, perhaps in a job share with Ilkay Gundogan, who was so adept at ghosting in from that second line last season.
Gundogan, though, will be 31 in October. Mahrez will also turn 31 over the course of this season and De Bruyne is 30.
City routinely plan their windows 18 months in advance and Grealish feels like a signing with next season in mind as much as this, even if, of course, Guardiola will hope his adaptation is a swift one and the pressure that comes with that lofty price tag may necessitate it.
Let Project Jack begin.