August 20, 2022

Not entirely his fault, is it?

To paraphrase Gary Lineker, football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, Real Madrid find a way.

There is really no other way to explain the end to the second leg of Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final against Madrid on Wednesday night. By every metric, they were the better team on the night, and across the whole tie. More possession, more passes, more shots, etc. Had they been more clinical, they could have been out of sight in the first half of the first leg.

But the beauty of football is that sometimes, that doesn’t matter. Intangible, mental factors come into play, like coping with pressure. Sometimes you can do everything right and still lose. That is essentially what happened to City in this tie, and why the latter stages of the Champions League often create the most dramatic, memorable moments.

And so the criticism being directed at Jack Grealish in the aftermath, as we try to find a reason as to why, how Man City blew this opportunity, feels somewhat harsh.

From one perspective, the £100m substitute with just two league goals to his name this season missed two excellent chances to put the tie to bed in the dying embers of normal time. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound great.

But from another, a player in his first season adapting from enjoying a free role at a mid-table side to becoming a functional cog in a more collective machine, came off the bench and made an immediate impact, bringing City centimetres away from securing their place in the final.

Twitter is not the best place to find nuanced discourse on any matter, especially in the emotionally charged moments after a game like this, but assertions that he is the worst Premier League signing of all time, that he cost his team a place in the final, are unfair and rooted in factors beyond his control.

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It is not his fault that City broke a record fee to sign him instead of making the more logical decision to go all out for Harry Kane. Nor should it come as a surprise that he is taking a year to adapt to a completely new system–parallels can be drawn with Mahrez who endured a similar process before hitting consistent, clinical form after a quiet first season at the Etihad.

Nor is it Grealish’s fault that Madrid have that je ne sais quoi in European competitions. Football is a game of fine margins and had it not been for Ferland Mendy’s heroic clearance, of Thibaut Courtois’ long legs, the narrative could be very different. We’d all be praising the impact he made off the bench, and calling for him to start more games.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to explain what happened in a football match. Sometimes, Real Madrid just win.

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