City begin another European campaign, this time with their £100 million man in attack. Will the former Aston Villa talisman help unlock the only trophy Pep Guardiola has failed to win in Manchester?
In 1979, when Nottingham Forest made Birmingham City striker Trevor Francis the first £1 million player in British football, more than doubling the previous record, his new manager, Brian Clough, breezed in late to Francis’s introductory press conference, stopping only to give his new star a playful thwack with a squash racquet before heading off to the courts. The insults continued: Clough later had an injured Francis making mugs of tea for everyone, telling the press he had a “million-pound tea boy,” and when the big signing suffered an injury in an FA Cup loss away to Ipswhich, Clough left him by the side of the road, where he had asked for his car to be left. “The car was not there,” reported Duncan Hamilton, “but he was still put off the bus as arranged, effectively leaving him stranded.”
Cultural shifts and changes in locker-room power dynamics make it unlikely that British football’s first £100 million player, Manchester City’s Jack Grealish, will be subject to quite the same level of autocratically eccentric negging, which is not to say his famously intense and meticulous new boss is a stranger to idiosyncrasy. Pep Guardiola’s obsessive attention to detail, and his hankering for order amid the chaos, extends to whether particular passes should be controlled with the inside or outside of the foot, as well as the type of spin that should be put on others, along with bespoke pressing triggers and the other fine calibrations of team shape, with or without the ball.
There will be plenty of stuff to learn and adaptations to make, then, for the archetypal socks-down soloist, whose ball-carrying ability, close-quarters dribbling, and game-breaking imagination evidently formed an irresistible package for a manager who will nevertheless still consider Grealish a £100 million work in progress, wet clay to be molded. Even the old dog Sergio Agüero was taught some new tricks.
With due apology to Adam Smith, the football transfer market may not be the best place to search for any inherent rationality, yet logic would also suggest that a £100 million outlay ought to be as near to a sure thing as football can offer (see also: £97.5 million goal machine Romelu Lukaku). Then again, Barcelona just had to sell off the family silver after previously splurging €105 million on Ousmane Dembélé, €120 million on Antoine Griezmann, and €145 million on Philippe Coutinho—three of the eight most expensive players in history—which shows that there are always risks involved, even beyond the force majeure of major injury.
Worst-case scenario, the seemingly limitless largesse of City’s owners will be able to withstand a nine-figure flop more easily than Pep’s professional pride, and despite Grealish’s lavish technical gifts, there are, inevitably, justifiable doubts that a relatively late-blooming player signed a month shy of his 26th birthday and without prolonged testing at an elite level will ultimately work out.
Grealish only has 100 Premier League appearances. His first Champions League action will take place on Wednesday against RB Leipzig. His international debut came just 11 months before he became the world’s sixth most expensive player. This was the start of a thrilling run to Gareth Southgate’s European Championship squad that not only impressed City’s playmaking kingpin (and Grealish’s idol), Kevin De Bruyne—who texted Pep after a Nations League game against England in November, urging his boss to sign him—but also fired up some old synaptic connections in the English footballing psyche. Grealish embodied a folk-memory of rebellious individualism from Robin Hood to James Bond, and there was a popular clamor for his inclusion in the starting XI and a buzz of anticipation around Wembley whenever his face appeared on the big screen.
Grealish’s popularity comes from being both gifted and relatable, the boyhood Villa fan turned talismanic captain who, one matador-pace dribble at a time, led his beloved club back to the Premier League in 2019, through a relegation dogfight the following season, and on to a 2021 campaign that saw them become punchy middleweights. He’s also a Jack the Lad who dabbled with nitrous oxide as a young pro and twice broke COVID-19 lockdown last year to get on the lash. He once said, had he not been a footballer, he would have worked as a nightclub promoter in Tenerife or Ibiza.
His showmanship and roguishness place him in the lineage of English football’s array of 1970s mavericks, who would occasionally interrupt their prodigious carousing to sprinkle a little larrikin magic on football matches (Alan Hudson, Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Charlie George, and Frank Worthington were all largely overlooked by successive England managers, none of whom qualified for the ’74 and ’78 World Cups). Grealish is their spiritual heir, successor to England’s last great midfield trickster, Paul Gascoigne, a player with whom he is frequently compared. The obvious similarities in playing style—the power, poise, and penetration—were amplified this summer by the resonance of a de facto home European Championships (six games at Wembley, just the quarter-finals in Rome), which brought back memories of the England-hosted Euro ’96 tournament, when Gazza scored the goal of the tournament and celebrated it like an Everyman pisshead.
Such were the frothy populist waves Grealish appeared to be surfing into Euro 2020. As it happened, Southgate ignored the noise, starting him just once; he twice failed to bring him on at all, and withdrew him in extra time against Denmark in the semis after he had come off the bench in the 69th minute (Jack wasn’t bothered). Overall, Grealish was restricted to just 176 minutes across the seven games. According to Alan Shearer, Southgate, a former 57-cap center-back who places a premium on solidity without the ball, simply “didn’t trust” Grealish defensively.
Grealish’s Euros marginalization—either on his own specific merits or simply as an avatar of more front-foot, pro-active football—seemed to capture deeper truths about English football. To loosely summarize the online discourse during the tournament: For some, it encapsulated English football’s reflexive mistrust of virtuosos, a conservativism ill-suited to a squad containing playmakers like Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, and Marcus Rashford. For others, it was a sign of tactical maturity, an evolved understanding that teams, however brilliant, are more than mere collections of parts, a truth long understood on the continent but still viewed with some suspicion in the harum-scarum high-intensity Premier League.
Grealish thus became a lightning rod, an accidental culture-wars totem. The incessant calls for his inclusion were depicted as unschooled, emotion-led, lumpen—particularly as the results seemed to vindicate Southgate’s caution—and ignorant of joined-up tactical thinking and the pragmatic realities of tournament football. There was also the personal capital the palpably decent and likeable Southgate had accrued—both from England’s run to the semis of the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Nations League, and his statesmanlike interventions in the febrile public discourse around race and taking the knee. The argument seemed to be settled; in Gareth we trust. The goal of tournament football is progression, said the positivists, so what’s the problem?
But this is to misunderstand a basic rule of alternative history, which is that even though things seemed to turn out well, they may also have been better. It is to cling too tightly to the idea that the “successful” way—the one that got you to the final—was thus necessarily the best or right way. Getting the job done is not the same thing as an optimal deployment of resources.
Scratch the surface of that run to the final and you find three underwhelming group stage performances, an 81st-minute Thomas Müller shank that spared England the agonies and baggage of extra time against Germany, a fortuitous penalty to sneak past Denmark in the semis, and a familiar inability to keep the ball in the final. Doing enough is enough, right up until the time that it isn’t. It wasn’t only passion-fuelled naïfs calling for football with the hand brake off, after all, and it would have been interesting to see how, say, Pep Guardiola would have lined up a squad with those resources.
Whether England followers consider Euro 2020 a success or a missed opportunity is largely in the eye of the beholder, a Rorschach test informed by England’s largely disappointing efforts in tournament football. However, by making Grealish the most expensive player in British football history, it could be inferred that Guardiola—the epitome of European tactical sophistication—is offering a rebuke to Southgate. Maybe. Seeing how Grealish shapes up with Pep’s equally non-negotiable defensive duties at City certainly adds an extra layer of intrigue to things, although Pep has much more time to teach his principles over the course of a season than Southgate did over the course of a summer.
Pep will also doubtless seek to tailor Grealish’s bag of game-breaking tricks to City’s attacking patterns, to align the individual and the collective: Be anarchic, but only when I say so! Or, as Monica Geller once said, rules help control the fun. And although Grealish doesn’t necessarily strike you as an avid Chomsky reader, he is by all accounts a football geek, tuned into the granular details of games, a copious watcher of the greats on YouTube. With Pep, there will be much for him to absorb.
City’s failure to match Tottenham’s £150 million evaluation of Harry Kane not only means Grealish will remain English football’s most expensive player for a while, but also that the club will lack an elite center-forward while being stacked in the two positions in which Grealish is notionally likely to play: one of two free eights in a midfield three, or out on the left wing. De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Foden, and Bernardo Silva can play those midfield positions—ahead of Rodri or Fernandinho as a pivot (or Gundogan if it’s a Champions League final) —with Foden, Bernardo, Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus, and Ferran Torres as wing options.
Wherever Grealish plays—and to get bogged down in talk of positions is to misunderstand that City’s precision-engineered rotations are more like pure Cruyffian functions—the success of his adaptation, and the speed at which he will silence chatter about his fee, will depend on internalizing those defensive expectations and, on the ball, working out when to dribble and when to pass. This is an aspect of his game that, fairly or otherwise, has been the focus of some sniping.
Grealish has been the most fouled player in the Premier League for the last two years—110 last season, 22 more than Wilfried Zaha, with 41 of those in the final third—a stat interpreted by some, not all, as bravery and responsibility on the ball, attracting defenders and creating space for others. The ability to draw fouls in dangerous areas will be less prized at City, however, who prefer to keep the ball alive than bank on set-piece goals. Graeme Souness, Liverpool’s former midfield enforcer and now a prominent pundit with Sky, argues that Grealish is fouled so regularly because he hangs on to the ball too long and “doesn’t see the picture quickly enough.”
Grealish fired back at that by tweeting “can’t please everyone” along with his chance creation stats. His attacking numbers for Villa, last season in particular, have been spectacular. The 70 chances he created from open play were second only to Bruno Fernandes’s 77—and this despite missing a dozen games with a shin injury (during which Villa’s points per game dipped from 1.7 to 1.0).
In terms of chances created per 90 minutes, Grealish was out in front, as he was in terms of ball carries into the area (80, with Sterling’s 62 in second place) and ball carries leading to a chance. Not bad while turning out for a team that finished 11th. Of course, Villa’s attacking strategy often seemed to boil down to “get the ball to Jack.” At City, he is the latest hard-steel blade in a top-of-the-range set of chef’s knives, where the cutting edge comes at you from more directions than Freddy Krueger in a mosh pit.
And yet, precisely because of those abundant creative options, Guardiola evidently sees Grealish as a real point of difference, a player, perhaps, to break the lines of low-block defense. The £100 million fee for Grealish is thus no mere indulgence of Pep’s well-established soft spot for twinkle-toed creators. In gamer parlance, he has been bought to take City to the next level, and with three Premier League titles in four years, plus five domestic cups, that next level can only mean Champions League glory. After all, within three months of Trevor Francis becoming the first £1 million British footballer, he was stooping at the far post in Munich to head home the only goal of the European Cup final against Malmö.
Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, Vice, ESPN, i-D and New Statesman, among others.