Jack Grealish loves a highlights reel when it comes to his favourite players.
Following his breakout international performance in England’s 2-0 Nations League loss to Belgium last season, Grealish revealed he watched clips of his favourite players Kevin De Bruyne and Philippe Coutinho before the match to get himself in the mood.
Grealish now counts De Bruyne as a team-mate following his £100million move to Manchester City and has enjoyed a promising start to life under Pep Guardiola.
The City boss has warmly voiced his admiration of the 25-year-old’s technical ability and that was to the fore as he sparkled in the Three Lions’ resounding 4-0 World Cup qualification victory over Hungary on Thursday.
Along with the type of skills the player himself would happily watch time and again on YouTube, there was also the sort of selfless work for the cause that will stand him in good stead at the Etihad Stadium.
Starting on the left-wing for Gareth Southgate’s men, as he did in City’s back-to-back 5-0 wins over Norwich and Arsenal, Grealish was the target of early attention from Hungary attacks down that flank – he didn’t give them a sniff.
Straight from kick-off a long ball was pumped over Grealish’s head and controlled by Hungary number nine Adam Szalai. But the City star was switched on and hared back to ensure Roland Sallai went down a blind alley.
It was the same story in the fourth minute when he sprinted into midfield to get back goalside of Andras Schafer, forcing his opponent to retreat.
This is an absolute non-negotiable for anyone playing in a Guardiola front three, as he again underlined ahead of the win over Arsenal.
In the 27th minute, the City boss was probably up off his sofa and applauding as he watched from home (surely he was – what else would you expect a football obsessive to be doing on a free weeknight?) as Grealish spotted right-sided central defender Akos Kecskes flat-footed and square on when receiving a pass from goalkeeper Peter Gulasci.
Body positioning and the fractional advantages and disadvantages it can provide is another Guardiola mantra and Grealish was on this slack piece of Hungarian play like a hawk, forcing Kecskes to punt aimlessly into the centre of the field where Kalvin Phillips was able to get England back on the ball.
Grealish’s capacity to win fouls is very well documented and it’s a fair concern that this might sometimes hinder a City side that likes to keep the ball moving at a high tempo in tight spaces.
However, failure to sign a striker in the transfer window means the Premier League champions might sometimes struggle for an attacking focal point.
Given Guardiola’s predilection for using a false nine – he has already said he believes Grealish can operate in the role – he will have nodded approvingly in the 35th minute when Jordan Pickford found the playmaker with a throw. As his England teammates scampered to join the attack, Grealish brought the ball down, shielded it and received a rash kick on his mightly calves. Physicality might be his most underrated attribute.
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Creativity and the one that got away
Of course, we all know about Grealish’s capacity to carve out clear chances and he was to the fore as England cut Hungary to ribbons after the break – playing in Mason Mount to cross for Raheem Sterling’s opener.
In the 67th minute came a classic Grealish move of dribbling at pace, slowing the tempo down a touch and then rolling a pass beyond a defence dancing to his tune. He drifted into midfield 12 minutes from time and took a calm touch before producing the type of through-ball De Bruyne would be happy to call his own.
The man on the end of both of those defence-splitting pieces of play? A certain Harry Kane. The England captain was unable to finish either but Guardiola will rue that Kane and Grealish’s flourishing relationship is not one he is now able to hone on a daily basis.