In the second entry to his weekly City Xtra column, Amos Murphy hails Jack Grealish’s influence at Manchester City and asks whether the Birmingham-born star is one of the Blues’ best big-game players?
The full-time whistle had long gone at Kenilworth Road, with most of the Manchester City squad – including manager Pep Guardiola – having already disappeared down the tunnel.
But braving the Bedfordshire rain and taking in the adulation from the travelling fans was one man: Jack Grealish.
It was a well-deserved moment of self-indulgence too. As the 1,000 or so City supporters packed into the antiquated Oak Road terrace started up another rendition of ‘Super Jack’, the England international stood wide-eyed, grinning from ear to ear.
About 30 minutes before, Grealish had scored Manchester City’s second of the game against a dogged Luton side. Finishing off Julian Alvarez’s back-post cross, Grealish’s second goal in as many matches gave City the lead at Kenilworth Road, helping turn around a first-half deficit against the Premier League newbies.
Unlike Grealish’s effort against Tottenham from one week prior, this time the forward would be rewarded with the match-winning moment.
Seven days earlier Spurs fought back to snatch a late point, but on a soggy afternoon at Kenilworth Road, Jack Grealish’s goal would prove to be decisive.
It had been a long time coming for the former Aston Villa star. Along with last week’s strike against Tottenham, a laughable referee blunder had stripped Jack Grealish of being the match-winner during a heated clash with Manchester United in January 2023.
While Grealish isn’t the only Manchester City star to have had a game-winning goal cancelled out in recent weeks (just ask Rodri after the Chelsea draw and Erling Haaland following the Liverpool game), it has somewhat skewed the narrative surrounding his time at the Etihad.
Ever since Grealish’s arrival from Aston Villa for an at-the-time British record £100 million transfer, the one major criticism of his game has been the lack of goals and assists.
Granted, a return of six G/A contributions in the Premier League during his maiden season didn’t exactly capture the imagination, but Grealish did go on to shoulder a more important role in the side for City’s triumphant 2022/23 campaign.
Featuring in 28 of City’s 38 Premier League games, along with all 13 of the Blues’ Champions League outings last time around, the Birmingham-born attacker did finish the campaign with a much-improved 16 G/A to his name – not that anybody is counting – but it was contributions elsewhere that made him an indispensable member of the treble-winning side.
Guardiola has often mused about how he wishes, at times, he could play with 11 midfielders on the pitch and with Grealish’s new and improved role last season, he was – and still is – one step closer to that.
A forward capable of chipping in with goal contributions when it matters, but more importantly one with the ability to read the game in the way that Guardiola demands, Grealish is the textbook definition of La Pausa.
His off-field interviews may give off the impression that Grealish is an excitable puppy-like character, lost in the billion-dollar industry that is professional football. But on the pitch, he is a beacon of footballing intelligence; a player whose understanding of the game can at times go unnoticed and is regularly underlooked.
There are still plenty of areas the 28-year-old can improve on. One being his occasional petulance, which most recently cost him his place in the squad for last week’s trip to Villa Park.
While a combination of prime Pele, Diego Maradona and Paolo Maldini probably wouldn’t have stopped a rampant Aston Villa from beating City, a silly booking against Spurs ruled Grealish out due to an accumulation of yellow cards. A suspension that had been accrued because of five bookings from just eight Premier League appearances.
And ironically, an uptick in goal contributions wouldn’t harm his cause either. To go from a good player to a great one at Manchester City, regularly getting your name on the scoresheet – no matter the opponent – is a non-negotiable. But the point is, Grealish isn’t a player that should be defined by his impact in front of goal.
While anyone of a City persuasion has salivated over the delights of Phil Foden and more recently Jeremy Doku – admittedly for different reasons – the pair do struggle to break up matches in the way Grealish can.
Be that for his often wrongly lamented ‘sidewards passing’, or his unrivalled ability to draw fouls from opposition players, Grealish’s presence on the pitch provides City’s attack with a dose of much-needed self-restraint. Where Foden and Doku will constantly have an eye for goal, Grealish has an eye for the game.
That isn’t to take away from Foden or Doku’s contributions this season though. Quite the opposite. The two have been in scintillating form themselves so far, stepping up in the absence of key players – including Grealish – to help drag City across the line in plenty of Premier League and Champions League matches.
Yet it has to be noted that City are a better team with Grealish in the side – something on display during the second-half showing against Luton Town.
He might not be the Harlem Globe Trotter some want him to be, but given his track record and experience in a blue shirt, Grealish remains a player who steps up and delivers in the biggest of moments. City’s very own Super Jack.
You can follow Amos on X here: @AmosMurphy_
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