Jack Grealish inspires as slick City deliver a masterclass
This will not be a season that stands out for Jack Grealish in terms of the number of goals and assists the Englishman may contribute, and yet Pep Guardiola could scarcely name a more important player available to this ebullient Manchester City team.
Perhaps Riyad Mahrez, on an afternoon when an injured Erling Haaland was celebrating goals from the hospitality boxes, but no-one else. Haaland watched as Grealish scored the last goal of a demolition of Liverpool and only his first at the Etihad Stadium all season. It came in what was perhaps his best performance yet in a big game for City after 18 months at the club.
Grealish has four goals and five assists in the Premier League season, and there was one in both categories in this game. These are not the towering numbers of his teammate Haaland, although there is something else at play when it comes to the No 10 for City. The skittering runs, the imperceptible changes of direction, the inevitable foul from the helpless defender — the Grealish effect is strong. You just will not see it expressed in the data.
Grealish and Mahrez were exceptional. The right-footed Grealish coming off the left and the left-footed Mahrez coming off the right, they made what was once the great full-back pairing in the league — Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson — look very ordinary. When Grealish was substituted in the 89th minute it was to rapturous applause and the strong sense that as this City team evolves he is a big part of what comes next.
Grealish has earned Guardiola’s trust at last. “All season I’ve been really, really pleased with Jack,” Guardiola said. “Aston Villa fans knew him really well. Nothing changes. But it is to believe ‘I am part of that [at City]’. He believes completely.”
Guardiola cited the covering run on 27 minutes with Liverpool improbably leading from a Mohamed Salah goal and the same man with a clear run on goal cut off by Grealish’s sprint back. “Football is more than the stats,” Guardiola said, in reference to his player’s underwhelming return on goals and assists.
“The way he gave us the right tempo to play and make the extra passes, I can’t imagine the big name he is and the price the club paid, the humility to run like a teenager. That means a lot to me and the team. At the same time, he has to score more goals at home.”
As for Grealish, he began the day — by his own admission — with more visits to the lavatory than was typical in his pre-match routine. He was not specific about his ailment in his post-match interview. “I was in the toilet all morning,” he said. “I felt sick, but I feel all right now.”
This was the kind of City performance that suggested there are no obstacles to what could be a fierce title chase over the next two months. This is their last free midweek in what is an epic nine-game April and the question that this performance poses anew is remarkably whether they are just as good without the man who has already scored 42 goals in 37 games for them this season. Haaland was only just ruled out of this game and should be back in contention for the trip to Southampton next weekend.
This was a City masterclass of moving an opponent who has coped well with them in the past into positions that Liverpool did not want. There were 10 of the Liverpool players who started against Manchester United in that 7-0 win in March and yet for the most part they looked lost. Jurgen Klopp would later say that only his two central midfielders Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, as well as Cody Gakpo and goalkeeper Alisson were not anywhere near the standard required.
It was not just Grealish and Mahrez who inspired. Ilkay Gundogan, who scored the third after Mahrez had created chaos in the Liverpool area, was a dominant figure. Kevin De Bruyne scored the first, 53 seconds into the second half. Haaland’s direct replacement Julian Alvarez scored the equaliser from Grealish’s cross, once the ball had been worked right to left by De Bruyne, Mahrez and Gundogan.
This is City at their devastating best. They go wide first and so much of the Guardiola plan depends on having two players in the wide positions who can take the ball and drive at a defence. Grealish gets the ball dozens of times in a game but too rarely finds himself in the positions where it might be him that scores. His goal came eventually on 73 minutes when he and De Bruyne isolated Alexander-Arnold and the Belgian’s return ball was perfectly placed into his teammate’s path.
There was no doubt that even for him, the transition from hometown hero to the first £100m signing in the team of the perennial champions was a big step to make. Days like these will convince him that he belongs as much as anyone in a Guardiola side.