The FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool was Jack Grealish’s chance to prove why Manchester United made him the most expensive English footballer of all time. While the 26-year-old has struggled to nail down a starting spot for his new team this season, he was named to the lineup at Wembley last weekend. By full time, though, Grealish still hadn’t justified his £100m price tag.
Grealish actually found the net against Liverpool, but City had already lost the match by that time. On the whole, the 26-year-old was a peripheral figure as the Premier League champions were dominated by their closest rivals. Luis Diaz, a January addition for just £37m, was one of the best players on the pitch for Liverpool. Grealish was largely anonymous despite costing nearly three times that amount.
However, all should be wary of writing off Grealish as a flop after just one season as a Manchester City player. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the England international will flourish under the guidance of Pep Guardiola in seasons to come. There is after all precedent for this – just look at Joao Cancelo, Riyad Mahrez and Rodri.
Many expected Cancelo to hit the ground running following his £35m move to City from Juventus three years ago, but the Portuguese right-back was seen as a depth option behind Kyle Walker in his first season at the club. It was even raised that Manchester City could sell Cancelo due to his integration troubles.
Since then, though, Cancelo has grown into his role under Guardiola to the point that he is now one of the first names on the City team sheet. The 27-year-old has changed how full backs are perceived in the Premier League due to his willingness to carry the ball into central midfield where he can help his team dominate possession and push even higher up the pitch.
Much like Grealish, Mahrez was widely written off as a luxury signing after swapping Leicester City for Manchester City in the summer of 2018. Now, though, the Algerian is one of Guardiola’s most reliable attackers, netting 22 goals so far this season. Mahrez has justified the £60m transfer fee City paid for him.
Rodri is perhaps the case that should give Grealish most encouragement. The Spaniard was signed for a club record fee of £62m in the summer of 2019 to be City’s new midfield anchor and initially struggled to acclimatise to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. Many believed he would never acclimatise.
Now, Rodri is one of the best midfield anchors anywhere in European football. He covers a huge portion of the playing surface which allows City’s attack-minded operators to push high with freedom. Kevin de Bruyne might be enjoying his best ever Premier League season and it’s no coincidence that this is happening with Rodri providing cover behind him.
Grealish has surely absorbed many of Guardiola’s ideas and methods even as he has struggled this season. The 26-year-old likes the ball into his feet, while Manchester City tend to play the ball forward into space. This is where the biggest challenge is for Grealish – he has to adapt his natural footballing instincts.
Off the ball, Grealish has also to acclimatise to Manchester City’s high-pressing game. He is an explosive player, but has previously kept this energy for when he is driving at opponents. Guardiola wants to see drive from his players even when they don’t have the ball, though. Nonetheless, Grealish was signed for his talent and that talent could still turn him into match-winning City player.