Man City's Sterling gamble increases pressure on Grealish ahead of crucial second season

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Perhaps taking a page out of legendary Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson's playbook, it is out with the old at Manchester City and in with the new in what has been a busy transfer window to date.

On the back of winning a fourth Premier League title in five seasons, City have waved goodbye to long-serving and reliable midfielder Fernandinho, while sanctioning the exits of forwards Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling – the latter's move to Chelsea going through on Wednesday.

It is undoubtedly a risk from City's perspective, not least with Jesus and Sterling joining fellow big-six clubs Arsenal and Chelsea respectively, but one the reigning English champions feel is worth taking as they freshen up their side.

Plenty of focus will undoubtedly be on new arrivals Erling Haaland, Julian Alvarez and Kalvin Phillips (sorry, Stefan Ortega), but Pep Guardiola will also need other squad members to step up in City's quest for more major honours.

That is a category Jack Grealish, now into his second season at the Etihad Stadium following last year's British record £100million transfer, fits into on the back of a rather mixed first 12 months or so in Manchester.

Unusually for such a big-money transfer, and for a player moving between clubs in the same league, Grealish was afforded a settling in period at City and occasionally went under the radar – right up until May's title celebrations, that is!

But with Sterling no longer around, the former Aston Villa star must now deliver if Guardiola's gamble is to pay off. Here, Stats Perform looks at exactly what Grealish offers to City, and the areas he can perhaps still improve.

Jack Grealish scored just three Premier League goals last season
Jack Grealish scored just three Premier League goals last season


GREALISH OVERLOOKED

Allowing Sterling to leave won't have been an easy decision for City, even if he did become more of a peripheral figure in his final 18 months or so at the club – coinciding with a 2-0 home loss to Manchester United in March 2021.

The versatile forward had started 70 per cent of City's games in all competitions between his debut and that loss to United, compared to 53 per cent of the Citizens' subsequent 77 matches.

He was named among the substitutes in both legs of the thrilling Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, as well as the final-day showdown with Villa in the Premier League.

But rather tellingly, it was Sterling who Guardiola turned to from the bench in the first leg against Madrid, with Grealish playing a watching brief throughout, as was the case in that game against Villa when City were chasing three goals.

Put simply, Guardiola felt he had options better than Grealish when in need of goals. But with wide forwards Sterling and Jesus gone, that surely cannot be the case this season – unless, of course, the plan is to rely on Haaland up top.

 

THE STATS DON'T LIE

Grealish played 39 times for City in all competitions in his first season at the Etihad, 31 of those being starts, ranking him level with Riyad Mahrez (31 starts) and behind Sterling (32) and Phil Foden (36) in a similar area of the pitch. Jesus, incidentally, started 28 games for City in 2021-22.

While that is a pretty telling statistic in its own right, Grealish's – let's face it – hugely underwhelming direct-goals involvement of just 10 in a high-scoring City side is what garnered the most attention when picking apart his first year under Guardiola.

Eight other City players directly contributed to more goals in all competitions last season, with Sterling registering 15 more combined goals and assists than Grealish. Mahrez, now well suited to playing in Guardiola's complex system, led the way with 33.

Jack Grealish xA map
Jack Grealish xA map

Grealish himself admitted midway through last season that he needed to play a bigger part in front of goal, but felt the statistics were not truly reflecting his performances in the final third.

"I think [stats] are important because at the end of the day that is what people look at such as how many goal involvements us attackers have. Especially when you come to a club with the price tag that I did," he said.

"If you don't get some [goals and assists] for a few games, everyone starts to talk. I think they are important but there will be times where you're playing well and the goals and assists just aren't coming. That's what I have felt recently.

"In the Watford game the other day I could have scored about four or five and I came off the pitch with nothing. Even the Leeds game, we scored seven goals as well and I only got one."

In that Watford game mentioned by Grealish, the England international finished with an expected goals (xG) value of 0.83 in his 68 minutes on the pitch but could not find the net from any of his five efforts, three of which were on target.

That compares to two goals from three shots for midfield team-mate Bernardo Silva from an xG of 0.28, with Sterling scoring City's other goal in that 3-1 Premier League win at Vicarage Road.


... OR DO THEY

That Watford game was very much a microcosm of Grealish's time at City to date, with the underlying figures backing up his previous point about his efforts perhaps not paying off.

His four assists in 2021-22, for example, came from an expected assists (xA) return of 7.08 – that differential of 3.08 being the highest of any City player. Effectively, had his team-mates put away certain chances, Grealish's season would have had a slightly more positive spin.

Indeed, the 78 chances created by the 26-year-old last season was bettered only by Kevin De Bruyne (129) among City players in all competitions, though just 10 of those were defined as 'big chances' by Opta, which is the same number as central defender Aymeric Laporte.

This is by no means to say Grealish's shortcomings last season were down to those around him. If he is to truly thrive under Guardiola, though, the shackles will surely have to be released if the Grealish that lit up the Premier League with Villa is to be seen again.

The Grealish that plays with freedom and flair – the reason Guardiola pushed hard for the club to pay a nine-figure sum for the transfer, after all – was there to see for England in their recent Nations League games.

He made a huge impact down the left-hand side from the bench with England trailing against Germany, managing six touches in the opposition box despite playing just 18 minutes, which was double that of any England player other than Harry Kane (seven).

Jack Grealish had six touches in the opposition box against Germany
Jack Grealish had six touches in the opposition box against Germany

Grealish then played a part in the incident that led to England being awarded a penalty in which Kane converted to snatch a 1-1 draw. That is very much the difference-making cameo Guardiola did not see enough of last time out.

The good news for Grealish is that he may be afforded more opportunities to get at opponents now that City have a target man in Haaland to aim for. The slick passing moves will not be done away with, as such, but Haaland is completely different in stature to any player City had up top last season.

And after a whole year of working under Guardiola, including a first pre-season, Grealish will now be far more accustomed to the demands expected of him if he is to become a regular in the starting line-up.

"I am just trying to keep improving all of the time and I know for a fact that the longer I am here the more I will improve," he added in that interview seven months ago.

With the old guard gone, the time has now arrived for Grealish to prove he has what it takes to thrive under Guardiola.

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