PPerhaps when Jack Grealish signed for Manchester City, the moment that contract was sealed, his elevation to that rarefied tune confirmed, he could have imagined himself, just for a brief moment, swaggering, socks down, through its own ticker tape parade, awash in glory, glitter, noise, screwed-up pieces of white paper.
Although maybe not like that. Maybe if Grealish squinted a bit, the faces of middle Yorkshires bombarding him with litter might have sounded, if you weren’t listening too loudly, like a worship choir, a super-fandom event of Grealish.
But that didn’t really matter. Because it was a great day for City, and a good one too for Grealish, who was nothing but solid, fulfilling his new brief as chief provocateur, hype man, crowd distractor; but who finished the day as part of a side that are once again a point clear at the top of the Premier League table, having gone through one game but beaten Leeds United.
The paper thing was weird. Why didn’t anyone seem to care? Is it just OK now? Football crowds are usually fed up with stewards. The concert is here. These gaming souls get paid a fixed hourly wage to deal with herd assaults from a populace that, even in the best-case scenario, close enough to the edge, aren’t going to put themselves at risk for the mark. The police are usually absent or follow the current policy of filming the whole thing like a bunch of voyeur teenagers.
So the paper continued to fly, albeit harmlessly enough. Grealish beamed and shrugged and sent one on the fly. And who knows, it might still have looked like a victory parade. There were some great moments in that 4-0 win. Phil Foden produced the assist of the game for Gabriel Jesus’ goal and did the De Bruyne thing, taking risks with his passes, providing a cutting advantage, racking up two more assists.
Beyond this town, the key player was Rodri. It has always been his kind of game. Jesse Marsch had promised that Leeds would be “annoying”, not to say “annoying”, “aggressive” and “dangerous”. He says a lot of good things. There’s something high-end corporate communicator about Marsch, the Ivy League inspirationalist, even coming in the moments before the game a mix between Sam Allardyce and the leader for a seven-week motivational program steps called Find Your Wolf Spirit.
From the kick-off, it was a close and deadly competition. Leeds players made 49 tackles in this game. That’s a lot of tackles. What does a game like this look like?
To begin with, the land seemed small. Sometimes there seemed to be too many players in white shirts on it, circling the ball, clutching it like a fist. This is the football that results in a kind of lightning defense, a denial of space, air and lines of sight. City like to skate upwind on these occasions. This is a team built to play in spaces, not clinches, to float, probe and run through its angles. For everything else, well, there’s Rodri, and he was hugely important at those times.
It was City’s ninth game in April. Rodri threw eight. You tend to notice it in those moments when the game boils down to duels and collisions, where you need that point of stillness. Rodri did the basics with precision and strength, assembling the game around the center circle. He also scored the first goal, from a free kick on the left flank. Foden’s delivery was hard, flat and wickedly precise. Rodri jumped in early and eyed the ball in the far corner.
It was a sweet moment for a player who plowed through the last month and suffered more than most away from Atlético Madrid, when the game became a constant time past knees and elbows and tugging and pinches.
Speaking of which: what to do with Grealish? It’s no secret that that first season has been a blow, a stalled process of adaptation, a luxury most don’t have with a £100million player. Perhaps Grealish’s greatest contribution in a City shirt was contortion at the Wanda Metropolitana, where even his kicking and hair-thumping warm-up had a sassy, unsettling energy. And here he is again pushed into this role, this time, at least, without wearing a bib.
And sometimes it was as if Grealish’s role had gone from No. 10 to No. 8 to a professional provocateur, a sly effigy, a fancy boy designated there to prance and romp and draw the ire of the crowd, an elite midfielder reimagined as a distracting pair of red socks. .
Stuart Dallas started on the right and took the opportunity to attack Grealish as hard and as often as possible. Maybe it was a tactic. Maybe he fed on the energy of the crowd. But it was a Dallas foul that led to the first goal. And just before half-time, his afternoon ended in disaster.
Grealish had already lost his temper, bringing in Paul Tierney to handle that pressure point. Dallas flew in another ball almost there, 60-40. Grealish went for it too, the angle of his leg inadvertently forming a solid barrier, causing Dallas to twist his knee violently.
All that interaction gave this game a weird, uncontrolled edge. But Grealish was decidedly commendable all the same. For City, it was a real obstacle dodged with disarming ease.