Ignore the stats: Grealish's growing importance to Man City highlighted by Liverpool loss

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Jack Grealish Man City Wolves HIC 16:9
The England attacker's numbers may not be impressive but his creativity was conspicuous by its absence at Anfield.

Jack Grealish has been repeatedly judged on his statistics during the first 15 months of his Manchester City career.

So, here’s an interesting one – Pep Guardiola's men have won every Premier League match that their £100 million signing has started this season.

For all those that insist he isn’t making a contribution because of his goals and assists totals, the counter-argument has been to look to beyond the numbers.

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It’s been a source of frustration for Grealish that he can’t silence his critics by contributing the kind of simple facts and figures that many turn to when evaluating the value of a player.

That’s clear in his expressions, which range from anger to exasperation to ironic bewilderment whenever a goalkeeper makes an impressive save or he misses a golden opportunity.

And it can’t be ignored that a relaxed and confident Grealish would be taking more of those chances if the pressure and spotlight on him wasn’t so intense.

Pep Guardiola does his best to alter the narrative, insisting he is happy with the No.10's contribution, but there remains a significant section of sceptics in the media who believe that the City boss has no other choice but to publicly support the club's record signing.

That negative perception of Grealish is starting to change, though, certainly among the fans who watch their side on a regular basis. They saw him cut Manchester United to shreds in a 6-3 victory on derby day, and slalom his way through Wolves at Molineux.

Jack Grealish Manchester City Wolves 2022-23 GFX

The fallout from Liverpool’s 1-0 victory at the weekend has mostly focused on the ugly scenes we witness off the field. Coin-throwing, offensive chanting and strained relationships behind the scenes have rightly dominated the news agenda.

Had the occasion passed off more peacefully, though, we would have discussed the key men in a top-quality contest between arguably the two best sides in the world.

It's also likely that the conversation would have then moved on to the exclusion of Grealish, who was once again left out of the starting line-up for a big game.

However, this time there may have been more questions asked as to why he wasn’t in the City side rather than viewing it as evidence of his struggles since arriving from Aston Villa last year.

Facing Liverpool, particularly at Anfield, has always challenged Guardiola’s tactical brain as he tries to pick a way through Jurgen Klopp’s shape-shifting line-up.

Occasionally, he’s found a master plan that has worked, but a mixture of individual errors and the intensity of the atmosphere has led to a record that now reads: one win in eight visits.

Last Sunday was another trying experience for Guardiola. It was a game that City largely controlled yet their opponents had probably the best two chances by sheer weight of force as much as tactical acumen.

City’s seemingly unbalanced set-up – which evolved around a stretched back-three, uneven wing-backs, a midfield pivot rotating between one, two or three holding players, and a sometimes front-two – would give most coaches and their players palpitations.

Erling Haaland Manchester City Liverpool 2022-23 GFX

But Guardiola’s team seemed well-drilled and clear in their objectives; it was a combination of Liverpool's quality and passion that knocked them out of their stride.

As ever with a visit to Anfield, it was a bespoke set-up, the kind that will always lead to suggestions that Guardiola has over-thought his strategy and prompt questions about what would have happened had he simply stuck to the plan that has worked so successfully since the beginning of the season.

Of course, Guardiola’s preparations are always uniquely tailored for the opposition, whether it’s Nottingham Forest or Wolves at the bottom of the Premier League, or Liverpool at the top – except the latter is always more pronounced.

Stopping a side of the Reds' quality always warrants special attention and, potentially, a redrafted philosophy.

And the arrival of Erling Haaland has made that situation even more complicated.

A manager whose love of midfielders is well-known, now has a goal-scoring machine that is simply undroppable.

With no Grealish and Riyad Mahrez in the side, Guardiola found a way of getting extra midfielders on the pitch to keep control at a venue where games can unusually run away from them.

The margin between success and failure of the system was small – a Phil Foden goal ruled out controversially by VAR, followed by a Salah goal which owed much to Joao Cancelo’s misjudgment.

James Milner also won praise for his shackling of Foden on the left wing, a position that Grealish is starting to make his own, and there’s no way of knowing if the makeshift right-back would have kept City's No.10 quiet too.

But the defeat at Anfield may have at least shown that Grealish's importance is growing, given he was undeniably conspicuous in his absence.