Manchester City’s summer signing played as a false nine for the first time but struggled to have much of an impact despite City dominating the first half of a pulsating 2-2 draw.
Of course, Grealish wasn’t actually that bad at all – he just seemed it when you compare Sunday’s outing at Anfield to his previous performances in a City, England, or Aston Villa shirt. The level of expectation that his exploits have created is extraordinary.
Falling short of expectations, though, in such a high-profile fixture when playing in a new role raises an important question: how will the rest of Grealish’s season look under Pep Guardiola?
Despite going with the same XI that beat Chelsea, City’s manager had a customary trick up his sleeve for an expectant Anfield. Guardiola deployed Grealish as the false nine rather than Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus or Kevin De Bruyne, but the England star was far less effective than when playing on the left-hand side.
Grealish touched the ball just 29 times during his 66-minute appearance, fewer than any of his teammates, as he struggled to drop and find space away from Liverpool center-backs Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip. He got the basics right – his 95% pass accuracy was the best on the pitch – but he struggled to make the impact Premier League viewers have come to expect from him.
After making a flying start to life at City, it was only a matter of time before Grealish’s form dipped. He opened the campaign with seven excellent showings, but against PSG last week and Liverpool on Sunday he looked in need of a rest.
Another factor in his slight drop-off may be the return of Foden and De Bruyne to the team. At Aston Villa, Grealish was the main man, with all attacking play going through him. When he joined City that largely stayed the same as the two elite playmakers recovered from injuries on the sidelines.
In the opening day defeat to Tottenham, Grealish launched City’s attacks from the number eight position. In the wins against Norwich, Arsenal and Leicester, City’s defenders and midfielders repeatedly looked to get the ball to him on the left-wing.
But, as we saw at Anfield, the influence that both Foden and De Bruyne hold is huge. Add to that the brilliant form of Bernardo Silva and perhaps it’s no surprise that Grealish has taken a step back out of the spotlight.
“Just his fearlessness on the ball”, Foden answered, when asked about what Grealish would bring to Guardiola’s side. “He can change a game on his own.” It’s a different dynamic now, though. City’s number 10 isn’t needed to change games by himself; he’s required to play a role in a fine-tuned machine. He is not the main man anymore.
If Foden maintains the levels that tormented James Milner, Grealish may make fewer outings on the left flank over the coming months. Similarly, while De Bruyne didn’t have his best games against PSG and Liverpool, once he is back up to top speed he will likely be un-droppable.
As City head towards a congested festive period, rest assured Guardiola will be racking his brains to find the most effective way of using his new weapon. One option could be to keep Grealish on the left and play Foden as the false nine, or even give Grealish a run out alongside Bernardo if De Bruyne takes a while to come into form. The brilliant Belgian thrived as the most advanced attacker on the way to the Champions League final last season.
Alternatively, Grealish could learn from his frustrating Sunday afternoon and make the false nine role his own.
He’s certainly good enough to do it and his physicality gives him an advantage in the position some of his teammates do not enjoy. It just might take some time but, given how England boss Gareth Southgate said he wanted to see more goals from Grealish, learning how to become an elite false nine would be time well spent.
Some City fans might complain that Guardiola has too many attacking midfielders but no striker at his disposal. Yet, in many ways, that is precisely what makes this side so exciting. Practically every game the system is different, a quality that makes the Blues incredibly hard to predict.
What is easy to predict though is that Grealish will be a huge success at the club, whatever position he ends up playing. The best is yet to come.