It’s been hard to escape the booming narrative around Manchester City’s final day tussle with Aston Villa in the Premier League.
Pep Guardiola’s team need a win to be sure of denying Liverpool the title and lifting the top prize in England for the fourth time in five seasons.
Plotting to thwart Guardiola is Villa manager Steven Gerrard, arguably Liverpool’s greatest ever player who never managed to win the Premier League — coming closest in 2013/14, when his infamous slip against Chelsea during the run-in contributed to City pipping Brendan Rodgers’ Reds on the final day.
Gerrard understandably seemed a little irritated that talk to this end had extended to people questioning how hard his players might try during Thursday’s 1-1 draw against Burnley. But there is another serendipitous storyline to be had on matchday 38.
City attacker Jack Grealish could line up against the club he supported and adored as a child before captaining them as a young man, becoming a hero on the Holte End for the Villa fans he once sat alongside.
The England international’s £100 million British record move from Villa to City last year was not met with universal approval and there will be some of those former admirers who would relish the prospect of Grealish’s boyhood club leaving him trophy-less at the end of first season chasing the biggest honours.
A decade on from Sergio Aguero’s immortal winner against Queens Park Rangers to snatch Premier League glory for City, the prospect of Grealish doing something similar — possibly resulting in the most forced respectful non-celebration of all-time — is just as tantalising as the Hollywood-worthy Gerrard intervention being fantasised over on Merseyside.
What has Pep Guardiola told Jack Grealish?
Guardiola has more modest ambitions for the player who will remain his most expensive acquisition at City, even after Erling Haaland comes through the door during pre-season.
“My advice to him is try to be happy as much as possible playing football, this is more important than winning the titles. Be happy doing your job,” he said at his pre-match news conference.
“You feel alone after winning, after two or three days. That’s all? All the effort for that? Yeah, it’s good, one [trophy] in your curriculum vitae but no more than that.
“Does he feel happy here? That is the most important thing. If he is comfortable playing, getting better and getting better, that is the most important thing.
“After you can reach [the title], of course, it’s magnificent. Tomorrow, we will see if he will defend the title in every single Premier League game next season. This is nice.”
It was an answer that got to the heart of tension that has been at play during Grealish’s first season at City.
Part of the appeal of the player England fans fell in love with during Euro 2020 was the off-the-cuff nature of his play, the sheer joy he exudes when sizing a full-back up with his socks slung low around those mighty calves.
There is a comic book, throwback quality to Grealish that endears, and there have been plenty of flashes of that in sky blue. However, costing £100m is not quite so romantic, nor are the relentless demands of winning and winning again at the elite level.
Guardiola knows this more than most and he has worn this knowledge in alternately sarcastic and salty public utterances over recent weeks, as the title race remained on a knife-edge. If City get over the line, it will be his 10th league title in 13 top-division attempts, including his previous spells at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Yet still there remains the thorny issue of him failing to win the Champions League since 2011 and City’s well-upholstered squad leading some observers to go “huh, well what did you expect?”, irrespective of the awesome sporting challenge posed by Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
“Of course, for [Grealish] who has never won a Premier League, it must be so exciting, so important,” Guardiola said. “But now [if City win] he will realise that the day after everything is all about ‘oh, you [only] have one…’.”
How many goals and assists has Jack Grealish got for Man City?
The very fact a player with Grealish’s price tag is not guaranteed to start against Villa speaks volumes enough in some respects. Playing almost exclusively in the front three of a team that has racked up 147 goals across 57 games in all competitions, the 26-year-old’s tally of six goals and four assists doesn’t do much to shift the needle.
“I think early doors in the season he started quite well, but then the pressures of being at Man City kick in, especially when you know that the eyes are going to be on you all the time,” former City defender Nedum Onuoha told The Sporting News.
“For the people who play up there, every missed shot, every missed pass, every indifferent game gets analysed, over-analysed and criticised.
“He’s got the price tag that will always follow him around. Even if he’d scored 10 goals this season people would have said it’s not enough, if he’d got 15 it’s not enough.”
The other side of Grealish’s debut season at City is he has generally played a selfless role for the team, whether slotting in as one of the rotating cast of false nines waiting for Haaland or giving Guardiola his cherished “extra pass” by holding City’s shape on the left, drawing opponents and using his physicality and technical ability to keep the team’s multi-pass attacks ticking along.
He averages 24.8 passes per 90 minutes ending in the final third, the fourth-best return among Guardiola’s players behind Kevin De Bruyne, Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Does Jack Grealish create enough chances at Man City?
Some who swooned at Grealish last year might bemoan some safety and conservatism coming into his game.
His 76 chances created in all competitions are second only to De Bruyne (118) in the City squad, but on Opta’s “big chances” metric, the Belgian outstrips Grealish by 20 to 10. Phil Foden and Cancelo have 17 and 13 big chances created out of 53 and 55 overall.
Again, this suggests Grealish’s chance creation comes from cut-backs and lay-off for more low-percentage openings, rather than incisive, defence-splitting work. Haaland might prompt a change in that department.
The case for him starting against Villa is a little more simple. The past two times Grealish has made Guardiola’s first XI he has excelled. He laid on an assist for Raheem Sterling and tore merrily at the Newcastle defence during a 5-0 win on the back of City’s Champions League semi-final exit at Real Madrid, where he was twice so close to being the hero.
Grealish then found a big goal in the title race, albeit with the aid of a deflection, and he was a leading light as City scrapped their way back from 2-0 down to a 2-2 draw at West Ham last weekend.
“You’re not just playing for Manchester City, you’re Jack Grealish of Manchester City where, if you’re not at your absolute best, people are saying you’ve failed. As a player, that’s a tough spot to be in,” Onuoha added.
“I think next season he’ll be fine. He’ll be very, very significant again next year who, who knows, maybe he can chip in with more goals and more assists.”
Continuing that progress with a goal on Sunday would fulfil Guardiola’s main wish for Grealish — one of those moments of pure happiness that keep their shine long after the medals have dulled.