Pep Guardiola’s £100 million dilemma might have a familiar fix after Ilkay Gundogan injury woes – Dominic Farrell

Thumb through the key details and it feels like Manchester City’s first Premier League game of this season took place in some sort of alternate timeline.

Tottenham, buoyed by the feel-good factor of the new Nuno Espirito Santo era, secured a 1-0 win over the champions, for whom Bernardo Silva and Rodri were unused substitutes.

City’s best player was probably full debutant Jack Grealish, who started alongside Ilkay Gundogan as one of two number eights in central midfield.

It was a position Grealish was expected to fill fairly frequently with his new employers, with Bernardo seemingly destined for the exit door.

He was back in his old Aston Villa position on the left wing for the home games against Norwich City and Arsenal, scoring in the first of back-to-back 5-0 wins.

But the most significant development was Bernardo returning to the first XI on sensational form that has not let up.

Pep Guardiola believes it makes him the best player in England’s top-flight right now, with City’s first-choice midfield trio of the Portugal international, Gundogan and Rodri becoming a huge source of strength as they chase a fourth title in five seasons.

It has left Grealish to find his place in a shape-shifting City frontline, with mixed results.

Manchester City ace Jack Grealish has experienced a period of frustration in recent weeks.
Manchester City ace Jack Grealish has experienced a period of frustration in recent weeks

For all that the 26-year-old has adapted fairly impressively to the multitude of demands placed upon attacking players in Guardiola’s system, his returns in front of goal make for awkward reading

He has three assists in 19 games across all competitions and has not scored in the Premier League since that Norwich game.

“One day he’ll unlock, he’ll score,” Guardiola said after watching his record signing blaze a glorious chance over during Saturday’s 1-0 win over Wolves.

“Jack is a player whose decision making is always really good. In the final third he needs to do it but it will come.”

No one realistically expects Grealish to suddenly become a 25-goals-per-season player and he doesn’t need to be, given City don’t have one of those in any case.

But there is still an expectation for forward players to chip in with a reasonable share and Grealish is unquestionably falling short in this regard.

“For strikers, when you play with 10 players, nine players in the box it’s so difficult,” Guardiola said, outlining the particular task City attackers face against deep-lying defences most weeks.

“That’s why when one team doesn’t want to play and it’s just long balls and they don’t press, it’s just shoot-and-cross, passive movements. Always it’s so difficult.”

A solution to this tricky equation that emerged last season were Gundogan’s judiciously timed late runs into the box. The Germany international was City’s unlikely top scorer.

It was another string to the bow of Guardiola’s perfect midfielder. Although he is not scoring at the same rate this season, his ability to dictate play and set a tempo with his passing means he is no less influential.

Ilkay Gundogan is nursing a back complaint

As such, the news Gundogan is nursing a back complaint that restricted him to 55 minutes on Saturday is a worry at this busy time of the season.

City have to find a different midfield balance when the ex-Borussia Dortmund playmaker is not around and they struggle for the same levels of control.

However, if Gundogan needs some time out over the coming weeks, it creates an opportunity for Grealish to reboot in a position he has not played since August.

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Away from the heavy traffic Guardiola identified in opposition penalty areas, he can see the whole picture, play off the cuff a little more and rediscover some of the joy that has appeared to seep from his game over the past month or so.

It is a tactical switch that won’t have been part of Pep’s grand plans, but neither was Bernardo being the fulcrum of his team this season. That hasn’t worked out too badly.

Reacting flexibly to events and finding different roles for the players at his disposal has always been one of Guardiola’s key strengths. He can do this again with Grealish and reap the benefits.

Would you like to see Jack Grealish get a run in midfield? Follow our City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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