Last November, after Belgium had beaten England 2-0 in the Nations League, Pep Guardiola messaged Kevin De Bruyne to ask what he had made of Jack Grealish. De Bruyne was effusive: Grealish, he said, was a player Manchester City had to sign. Back then Manchester United had seemed the most likely buyers but nine months on it is City who have landed him, for a fee of £100m.
Although it is possible Harry Kane could take the record in a few weeks, no British player has cost more. On the face of it, for a player who turns 26 in September, has never played a European game, has started only three matches for England and has made fewer than 100 Premier League appearances, that looks remarkably high.
But then Grealish has something extra, a capacity for the imaginatively explosive, that sets him apart. He scored six goals and set up 10 others – only Kane and Bruno Fernandes registered more assists – in the Premier League last season. Only De Bruyne created shooting opportunities at a faster rate. Only Fernandes created more passes in open play that led to a shot. No forward progressed the ball a greater distance towards the opposition goal. But there is something less tangible too, the aura of mischievous self-belief that means that when he gets the ball, there is a sense of expectation that other players cannot generate.
That itself, though, is a double-edged sword. An element of the anarchic can benefit any side. City regularly find themselves up against massed rearguards, and somebody with Grealish’s tight dribbling ability should be able to create space where none had appeared to exist. It is not to suggest he is anywhere near as good as Lionel Messi to think he may be able to perform a similar game-breaking function.
With unpredictability, though, comes an inevitable doubt. Pep Guardiola prioritises control and that tends to demand players be predictable. His usual way of breaking down packed defences is rapid one-touch passing, which is something Grealish has not been used to at Villa. Working out the balance between dribbling and moving the ball on will be one of the two major factors that will determine whether Grealish will be a success. That tension could provide the spark that fires City to the Champions League, but any tension is always a risk.
The other is his defensive work. Grealish ranked only 141st for pressures per game in the Premier League last season, with just over 20% fewer than De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva. That does not mean that he was lazy or neglected his defensive work, necessarily, more it is that Villa and City play in very different ways and there will be a period of adaptation. It took Riyad Mahrez, for instance, a season after his move from Leicester before he began to produce anything close to his best form.
Given Grealish’s reputation for relentlessness, it would seem unlikely he would not be able to cope with that physically, but just as important to modern pressing is the mental side: learning the cues, recognising the triggers and taking up the right position to cover others who move to close opponents down.
Gareth Southgate was worried enough about Grealish’s defensive work that he spoke to him about it after the two pre-Euro 2020 friendlies and then used him sparingly in the competition itself. If a player is not disciplined enough for Southgate, is he really going to be able to fulfil Guardiola’s demands?
Then there is the issue of where Grealish will play. At Villa he operated both centrally and on the left and there is no reason why he should not do the same for City. With Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling already contesting the position on the left flank and Ferran Torres also an option, it seems Guardiola sees Sterling as more of an eight, one of the two roving central midfield players, to play in tandem with one of De Bruyne, Ilkay Gündogan and Bernardo Silva.
That is assuming that nobody leaves City but it seems probable that at least one and possibly two more players will follow Sergio Agüero and Eric García out. The prospect of Grealish, Kane, Sterling and Foden linking up could be extremely exciting news for England.
There has been the predictable rending of garments and wailing from Villa fans on social media but gifted local kids have abandoned the clubs they supported as a boy for wealthier and more successful sides since the days Villa were importing Scots in the 1890s. The club itself seems to have accepted early the probability of Grealish’s departure and, in contrast to Tottenham’s approach, bought their replacements in good time. Both Emiliano Buendía and Leon Bailey offer creativity in the final third.
The squad may not be as exciting without Grealish but it should have greater depth and better balance. That may be a mundane goal after the joys of watching a local hero win games through individual genius but that is modern football. As City look to Grealish to inspire them to even greater heights, Villa hope his sale can consolidate them in the Premier League for the foreseeable future.