Ask Pep Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain, or indeed anyone connected with Manchester City and they’ll try and tell you that City aren’t like Real Madrid. They’re not a club who spend a stupid sum on any one player. Yes they have money, they will never deny that. But they will tell you that they prefer to invest in potential, even if that occasionally means they overpay, but they won’t spend an astronomical amount.
That changes now.
Jack Grealish is not only Manchester City’s record signing, at £100 million he is the most expensive player ever bought by a Premier League club.
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Yes, City have made plenty of signings between £50-60 million in the past (which is why it’s so hard to take their protestations seriously) but they have never done this. Even if you believe that they are still a team that buys success given the way they’ve spent money, you couldn’t argue with their premise that they weren’t making purchases like Paul Pogba, Virgil van Dijk, Nicolas Pepe or Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Jack Grealish

Image credit: Getty Images

If you scroll down Wikipedia’s “most expensive transfers ever page” (which is not always accurate but helps illustrate the point) There are 27 players before City’s name appears. These are the teams that appear before them; PSG (twice), Barcelona (five times), Atletico Madrid (once), Manchester United (five times), Real Madrid (five times), Juventus (thrice), Liverpool (once), Inter Milan (once), Arsenal (once), Bayern Munich (once) and Chelsea (once).
Don’t quibble over the fees. Look at what it means. In their history, as one of the three to five riches clubs in the world thanks to their owners, City never lashed out these outlandish fees.
Now they have, and that’s important.
Let’s not forget Guardiola’s team did something special this season. In a campaign truncated by a brutally short off-season thanks to the pandemic they didn’t just win the league, they cantered. Yes the gap was only eight points in the end but the focus clearly switched to the Champions League later on in the campaign. They could do that thanks to a historic winning run that saw them go 28 games unbeaten, winning 21 straight in all competitions. This was meant to be the season where big teams fell apart because of the intense physical demands on their players. At times City hardly looked as if they were breaking sweat.
And now they’re going to be adding one of the best creative midfielders in the country? That is dangerous for a lot of reasons. Firstly Grealish, who had six goals and 10 assists last season in the league, averaged 3.1 key passes per game. The only player who had more in the Premier League? Kevin De Bruyne.
Now De Bruyne has another creator, something at times it looked as if the team was sorely lacking without David Silva. Plus Grealish’s versatility means that he is another option out wide and he now offers something different to Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling.
Look, you don’t need me to tell you just how good a signing Grealish is for City, he’s one of the best players outside of the top six and would walk into most teams in the world.
Let’s talk about what it means in a bigger picture. For years City have built their team a certain way. £20 million here, £35 million there, occasionally £50 million+. They got a lot of things wrong in the transfer market (as all big teams do) but more than most sides it felt as if they were smarter about their problems. Claudio Bravo didn’t work? In comes Ederson. Fernandinho being relied on too much? Welcome Rodri. Benjamin Mendy and Danilo not working out? Let’s get Joao Cancelo.
Compare that to some of their rivals and you can see where the shrewdness showed. Liverpool not being able to cope with their injuries or their forward line regressing. Manchester United and their issues in defence or central striker. City wouldn’t let these issues linger long. Again, they’re not perfect, but they generally seem to be a bit more forward-thinking.
But now Guardiola clearly feels that the team is lacking something. They were beaten in the Champions League final and have watched two domestic rivals lift Europe’s premier trophy since the Spaniard arrived in Manchester. Another got to the final. Guardiola doesn’t want to leave anything to chance as he enters new territory, this is the longest he’s ever spent at a club. If that means spending £100 million on a player? So be it.
And, as it turns out, if that means spending over £100 million on two players? So be it. We don’t know what will happen with Tottenham Hotspur captain Harry Kane, but if he does rock up at the Etihad this season you know it will be for BIG money. There’s no mid-level signing like Gabriel Jesus, this is one of the best strikers in the world in his prime. That is not what you’d expect from City.

England's forward Harry Kane (R) and England's midfielder Jack Grealish applaud after the UEFA EURO 2020 Group D football match between Czech Republic and England at Wembley Stadium in London on June 22, 2021.

Image credit: Getty Images

Signing Grealish (and Kane) sends a message. City aren’t playing anymore. They want to dominate English and European football. Their reported reluctance, along with Chelsea, to join the proposed European Super League can certainly be explained away with a sportswashing theory. That may be true, but it also feels as if that comes from being satisfied with where you are as a club, and not being scared about missing out on maximum revenue from the Premier League and Champions League. With that squad and that manager they know they’re all good.
But they want more. The club is desperate for the Champions League, it’s both a craving and an obsession. They have established themselves as a side that will go down as one of the best in Premier League history with three Premier League titles in five years under Guardiola. But they are not even close to be remembered as an all-time great team, because they haven’t won in Europe. It helped elevate Guardiola’s legendary Barcelona team, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side and even Jupp Heynckes and Bayern Munich. Consider this. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid team only won one Spanish title, but their dominance in Europe secured their place in the history-books.
Guardiola wants that. More than anything he will want to be able to put a second team in the history books. He has one but despite the tactical innovations he showed at Bayern Munich, it is just one. If he is to be considered equal to the likes of Ferguson he has to win in Europe, preferably more than once. No manager has ever won four European Cups/Champions Leagues, even Ferguson only managed two. Guardiola knows doing that cements his legacy, and he’s going to achieve that no matter. He’s not playing around.
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