As the dust settles on the Premier League season, and the sky-blue pyro finally fades away from the streets of Manchester, there’s a good few weeks before the start of the transfer window to examine Manchester City’s season. Pep Guardiola made it consecutive league titles, winning four of the last five available after some final day drama helped them overturn a two-goal deficit to Aston Villa and win 3-2 to secure the trophy, having been clear favourites on the bet exchange.
For all of the breath-taking football they played this season, it was two defensive midfielders who had to bail City out — İlkay Gündoğan’s brace either side of Rodri’s piledriver on the edge of the box was enough on a suspense-filled afternoon at the Etihad Stadium. But City could have just as easily lost that game, and their lack of an out-and-out goalscorer — Gabriel Jesus being used more as a wide forward — has meant they have struggled to break sides down this season.
That might seem a strange conclusion to get from a side that scored 97 league goals, but failing to sign a recognised striker after missing out on Harry Kane has meant more responsibility from the midfield. While Erling Haaland and Julián Álvarez have been signed to carry that burden next year, Guardiola’s big money signing of last summer certainly flattered to deceive in the context of City’s season.
Jack Grealish arrived for £100 million from Villa and its fair to say he has taken his time to be integrated into the Spaniard’s system. Having scored six goals and provided four assists, you’d expect the 26-year-old to have slightly better productivity, but his versatility ended up being a poison chalice, as he was forced out of his more familiar number 10 role and asked to occupy space out wide in a team that sees far more of the ball than what he was used to in the West Midlands.
Then of course, there’s the pressure of the price tag. Despite scoring a first goal relatively early in his City career at home to Arsenal, with each passing game the Birmingham native failed to find the back of the net, the more scrutiny he received. Nonetheless, he managed to score some important goals in the title race. He finally looked to have stopped playing within himself, and started the comeback against West Ham United with a clever finish.
Guardiola clearly has high expectations of Grealish and while the season wasn’t as successful as he would have liked, it was clear he was proud of the progress he made in terms of fitting into the City way of playing. Before the final day against Villa this was clear to see. “For him to have never won a Premier League, it’s so exciting,” he said.
“The day after, we’ll be happy if we have won. But my advice is to try to be happy playing football, this is more important than winning titles. You feel alone after two or three days. That’s all? All the effort for that?
“Having it on your CV is good but no more than that. It’s magnificent and then you defend over a year being a champion. Someone has to take us out.”
While it looked as though Grealish had matured as a player, his celebrations in City’s title parade seem to say otherwise. After a video emerged of him slating Newcastle United’s Miguel Almirón, a few Magpies fans were understandably frustrated — after all, the Paraguayan had played 200 minutes less than him and only scored two less goals. The next season will be make or break as Grealish enters his prime years, and anything less than Guardiola’s high standards could see a place on the bench become a more permanent fixture, regardless of how expensive he was.