Ken Early: Signing Jack Grealish is Man City’s attempt to buy relevance

England midfielder does not address champions’ weaknesses but he gives them star power

Jack Grealish has become the David Beckham of his generation – by common acclaim, the sexiest, most charismatic English player of the moment. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

The opening weekend of the Premier League was a story of strong teams smashing weak ones to the delight of their returning crowds – until Tottenham sensationally disrupted the pattern by beating Manchester City. Seldom can an opening-day result have felt more transformative for the prospects of both sides. Who would have thought that City need Harry Kane more than Tottenham do?

Toothless in attack, porous in defence, Pep Guardiola’s team were mugged repeatedly on the counter-attack and could have lost by more. Spurs not only inflicted a damaging defeat, they showed every other team in the league how City can be beaten. The surprising thing was how simple the winning approach was. Sit back and let them pass the ball around in front of you, and when you win it back, break forward at speed and shoot on sight.

“We’re lucky, because they had clear chances,” Nuno Espírito Santo cautioned afterwards, but the majority of City’s opponents would gleefully accept the balance of chances that transpired here. City’s opportunities mostly came in the first 15 minutes, when Spurs seemed intimidated – before they collectively realised that there was not much to be afraid of. Ferran Torres at false nine is not scaring anyone.

You were left to wonder: how good is this City side really? They started the day as odds-on favourites to win their fourth title in five years. This is not surprising in the context of their record last season, when they managed a run of 28 matches unbeaten, during which they set a new English record of 21 consecutive wins, and the squad that achieved this has since been reinforced with the Premier League’s first £100 million signing.


But that was pandemic football – empty stadiums, congested schedule, no pre-season, exhausted players. The expectation that this season the top teams will be playing with greater speed and intensity had already been confirmed by the opening performances of Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool before Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura gave City’s defenders the runaround. Last season Ruben Dias won Footballer of the Year, exuding a presidential air as he marshalled City’s defence. This year we’ll see how he gets on against opponents who can run around, and the first indications were concerning.

Just as concerning was what was happening at the other end of the pitch. Last season, Jack Grealish was one of the best players in the league at carrying and passing the ball into the box. But City already have a player who does that in Kevin de Bruyne. There's no shortage of creative attackers at City, but they are short at left-back, striker and central midfield. So what was it about Grealish that made City think it was worth breaking the British transfer record to get him?

To understand that, you have to remember a self-pitying speech delivered by Guardiola in May 2019, when City won the domestic treble but – their manager felt – never got the credit they deserved. Accusing the media of favouring Liverpool, Guardiola said: “If Liverpool had won the Premier League it would have been an ‘incredible’ achievement. When City win it is, ‘oh, it’s okay. It’s an achievement.’”

Having spent the summer chasing Harry Kane, City now need to seal the deal

Coming from Barcelona and Bayern, clubs that are effectively the national teams of historic European regions, he had got used to his victories being lauded with appropriate adulation and praise. It was a shock to discover that things are different when your team is not even the biggest club in its own city. It turns out that when you succeed with City, it doesn’t move the needle in quite the same way as the triumphs of Bayern or Barca do. City’s lavishly-funded successes have proven easy to ignore.

That’s why they have paid £100 million for Grealish. They weren’t buying just another creative attacking midfielder to add to an already-impressive collection. They were buying relevance. Since his overdue arrival into the England squad, Grealish has become the David Beckham of his generation – by common acclaim, the sexiest, most charismatic English player of the moment. English fans are so crazy for Grealish they’ll even watch Man City matches if that is the only way to see him. By adding Grealish and maybe Kane to a team that already includes England regulars Raheem Sterling, John Stones, Kyle Walker and Phil Foden, City have thrown down a challenge to the English football public: “Ignore us now!”

That’s the strategy. It still leaves the question of tactics. What is Grealish’s actual role in this team? At Villa it was simple: he was the creative star, his job was to create chances, whether that by passing, dribbling, it was up to him. At City the team is supposed to be the star – so Grealish has to figure out how to make himself relevant within that framework. Against Tottenham, he kept getting the ball in bad situations – receiving passes to feet in the left channel, with the Spurs defence organised and ready. Even Grealish will struggle to make things happen from a standing start – and looking around the rest of City’s attack, none of them looked fully confident in the game plan either.

It's obvious that the task for City's creative attackers would be simplified by the addition of a fearsome central reference point in Kane. Having spent the summer chasing the Spurs captain, City now need to seal the deal. Either they finish the Kane saga by paying Daniel Levy far more than Kane is objectively worth, or they sign their second-choice centre-forward (one hopes they have decided on a second choice, because the teams who don't always end up paying way over the odds). Or they try to defend the title with an attack that looks better at assists than goals.

Guardiola is stung by the accusation that he is a chequebook manager. Last week, in the course of an occasionally incoherent defence of why it’s actually fine for City to consistently outspend everyone else in football, he kept referring to the fact that he once won the Champions League with a Barcelona team that included seven graduates from the club academy – “Cost: zero.” He’ll never get to make that boast about his work at City. But if they do break the record again to sign Kane, at least he can be sure that this time, the English will have to pay attention.