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Second-season syndrome is a good thing at Man City – all eyes on Jack Grealish

Regardless of the factors involved, a £100million transfer is always going to heap the pressure of expectation on the player involved.

Last season, everything Jack Grealish (£4m) did was viewed through the prism of his gargantuan fee.

While his underlying numbers were rather encouraging, his direct output of six goals and four assists from 38 appearances was heavily criticised.

And in the world of Dream Team, where goal involvements are everything among midfielders, the 26-year-old underwhelmed as he produced 102 points.

To put that tally into perspective, it was dwarfed by seven other midfielders from Man City alone.


Should Dream Team bosses expect improved returns from Grealish this season

Should Dream Team bosses expect improved returns from Grealish this season

The good news for the England international is that, under Pep Guardiola, a theme has developed of high-profile players taking a year to bed in at the Etihad before becoming one of the starting XI’s most crucial elements.

Leroy Sane lacked direction in 2016/17 as he mustered just five league during his first season with the club as he fulfilled a variety of roles.

However, once he was trusted with a specific task on the left flank, he blossomed into one of Europe’s best wingers – the German scored 30 goals across the two campaigns that followed.

Joao Cancelo (£6.5m) was a shadow of the player English fans know today when he first moved to City from Juventus.

In fact, such was the Portuguese’s form in 2019/20, he was given just 13 league starts – an unfathomable stat now he’s widely recognised as one of the most influential players at the club.


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It’s a similar story for Rodri, who needed two seasons to acclimatise to Manchester with Guardiola preferring the experienced Fernandinho at defensive midfield in several high-profile games.

That all changed last season when the Spain international established himself as one of the most consistent players in the league – he’s now one of the first names on the team sheet.

Cancelo and Rodri were seen as ineffectual in their first season at City

Cancelo and Rodri were seen as ineffectual in their first season at City

It could also be argued that John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan took their time in raising their game to the standard required by Guardiola, though in fairness the latter was affected by two serious injuries.

If Grealish was disappointed with his debut season for City, as he has indicated in interviews, then he can take heart from the successful transitions of his predecessors and team-mates from fringe players to key contributors in recent years.

It stands to reason why this trend has emerged and why City’s No10 seems to have aligned with it.

For Guardiola, this system is everything, despite the wealth of individual talent available to him.

His tactics contain complex patterns and sophisticated ideas – a certain degree of familiarity is required before the habits he desires become second nature.

At Aston Villa, Grealish was the system.

And Dean Smith was right to make use of his dribbling ability and charismatic magnetism because that was best for the Villains at the time.

Grealish averaged a goal or assist ever 119.7 minutes across all competitions in 2020/21 and racked up plenty of Dream Team points in the process.

Grealish was free to dictate games as he pleased for Villa

Grealish was free to dictate games as he pleased for Villa

The transition from a one-man band with licence to express himself at will to a disciplined component of a greater machine was always going to be demanding.

However, that’s not to say that Guardiola wants his players to be predictable and robotic.

He has repeatedly stressed the importance of gifted dribblers, particularly when it comes to breaking down stubborn opposition in low blocks.

His Barcelona side were the kings of tiki-taka but without Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi’s ability to ghost past defenders they wouldn’t have been half as successful.

What Grealish needs to learn, and Guardiola needs to teach, is the ability to differentiate between situations that require tactical awareness and those that call for individual brilliance.

It’s fair to say the playmaker’s pressing also needs a lot of work – it was noticeable how often his timing was out of sync with his team-mates last season.

All things considered, a year under his belt can only be a good thing and most signs point towards a marked improvement from Grealish in 2022/23.

Whether Dream Team bosses are prepared to back him from the get-go after being burned last term is another issue but his returns should be monitored closely.