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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

All roads lead to Manchester City


Jack Grealish is every kid’s dream come to life.
Image: Getty Images

Boy the pandemic really handicapped Middle Eastern oil money, huh?

It appears that Manchester City are going to whisk away Aston Villa’s one true hero in Jack Grealish for around $139 million. There had been some hope that Grealish would stay with a new, lavish contract at Villa and be the club’s greatest ever player and revered like the lovechild of Luke Skywalker and Ares, but it appears that’s not going to be the case.

That said, you’d struggle to find a Villa fan that will have a bad word to say about Jack. He is every kid’s dream come to life. A fan of the club from birth, joined them in his childhood, rose to the first team, lifted them out of the mire of the Championship to promotion, became a star as he saved them from relegation, and then pushed them higher than they’d been in a decade last season. All the while making his debut for the national team and then becoming a semi-regular, including setting up the two goals that saw Germany off in the round of 16 at the Euros. Grealish is beloved by Villan fans not just because he’s their best player, but because you genuinely feel if he wasn’t playing he’d be standing on the Holte End hurling the most curious collection of swear words at the ref right next to them. Probably while chain-smoking.

As I’ve written before, not only does Grealish kind of look like a prick with that haircut and his lack of shin pads, but he plays like one too. He’s the guy who no one’s bothered to tell he isn’t Lionel Messi, and he does just enough of a reasonable impression of a poor man’s Messi that no one is going to. He’s never afraid to take the ball himself out of any situation and into another, dares defenders to try and take it off him, and either beats them clean or draws one of the 187 fouls per game that he gets. He’s kind of “James Harden comes to soccer,” except he’s actually fun to watch. He plays like he’s better than you, like he knows something you don’t, and most of the time, he is and does. Throw in great vision for a pass and you really do have a demigod in the making on your hands.

Where he fits in with City isn’t so clear, though. Especially if they go through with plans to also purchase Harry Kane for anywhere between $150 million and $200 million (UAE blood money knows no bounds or pandemics). That would soak up the center forward spot, a place last year Pep Guardiola didn’t really play an actual striker but rotated wingers and midfielders through as a false nine. Grealish could be groomed to do that job, holding up play between the lines with his otherworldly control and touch while Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, and İlkay Gündoğan run beyond him and create havoc. But Kane would rule that out, if it happens.

Playing on the left opposite Mahrez in the frontline would seem to be the most natural spot, but given the way Guardiola likes to play that’s not a turn-key fit. Guardiola prefers his wide forward to be more direct, stay wide until the last minute, and create space for the two advanced midfielders to get into between them and the central striker. Grealish isn’t any of that. His dribbling can hold up play, he likes to get central to link up far more than he does staying wide. Then again, so did Mahrez once upon a time and Pep was able to mold him to do all things. That’s probably the plan.

Grealish could also feature in midfield, though that’s a crowded spot with the aforementioned names. City don’t really play with a true #10, which has always seemed like Jack’s true calling. Let’s just say there are options, including when Guardiola loses his mind again in the latter stages of the Champions League and plays him in defense.

As for Villa, it’s not like this isn’t an opportunity for them either. $139 million still goes pretty far, and this is after they’ve already secured Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen and Emi Buendía from Norwich. Unfortunately there isn’t a ton of time before the start of the season, just 10 days, and any purchases are going to have to be fitted in during the start of the campaign which can make for rough seas for a bit. Still, that kind of cash and the quality it could buy, Villa fans can be excused for dreaming. And the race for European places beneath the top four is wide open, as Arsenal could be anything, Spurs are a mess, and Everton could be in open revolt against their manager by halftime of the opening week. There’s a window.

Still, one can’t help but be disappointed about yet another familiar tale of a star player outside the top four being vacuumed up by said top four. Grealish staying at Villa and trying to turn them into something formidable would have been the better story. You can’t begrudge him, for as much as it seems like City’s squad is about 100 deep, only a small fraction of players get the chance to win the things he’ll have now. And Guardiola might turn him from England squad player to England foundation, just as he did with Sterling. Who just might be whom Grealish replaces for club and country.

Cruel world.

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