With Or Without Kane, Grealish Unlocks Manchester City's 'False Nine' Potential

Could we see a new version of Pep's beloved false nine system?
06:55, 12 Aug 2021

Pep Guardiola found the perfect formula in Barcelona. As a talented young manager, his decision to sell Ronaldinho and move Lionel Messi to a false nine position saw the club dominate the sport playing Guardiola’s own unique philosophy. Tiki-taka has evolved slightly since those days, but Guardiola has continued his possession-based football at both Bayern Munich and Manchester City with great success.

Now, Man City’s summer transfer business suggests he could finally be able to replicate something similar to what he had at the Camp Nou, even if they don’t sign Harry Kane. As Sergio Aguero’s decade at the club came to an end this summer, many thought the Tottenham forward would join up with the Premier League champions, but, as of yet, it hasn’t happened.

Instead, City are heading into their opening game of the season against Kane’s Tottenham Hotspur with only Gabriel Jesus as a recognised striker. Ferran Torres can potentially play there as he did in the Community Shield, but Guardiola has always preferred to have a squad jam-packed with elite midfielders, and one man who could fill that false nine role is £100m man Jack Grealish.

He is not Messi, but he has the attributes to link a team together just as the Argentine does. His ability to hold onto the ball in tight spaces and draw fouls is second to none, while he is also an unselfish player, summed up by his 10 assists last term. If Guardiola is looking at options to play up front, Grealish makes more sense than most. He is at his best in the central areas of the pitch, and even when playing from the left he looks to get inside to cause serious damage. 

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Guardiola’s other options include Gabriel Jesus, the only natural striker at the club, but he still leaves his manager unconvinced. He made 22 starts last season in the absence of Aguero, yet returned just nine goals for the best side in the league. It isn’t just his goal output that is underwhelming either, he fails to link up the play in quite the same way as a false nine would and is more of a poacher in the box, something that Guardiola has never been the biggest fan of. 

Torres provides a more well-rounded option but City seemed to lack a cutting edge in the Community Shield, while Raheem Sterling has played as a false nine before, and did have a goalscoring edge at Euro 2020 under Gareth Southgate. If he can get himself back in Guardiola’s good books he could be the goal-scoring winger City need this summer, especially given the potential link up between him and fellow Englishman Phil Foden and Grealish. 

Of course, there is a giant elephant in the room that needs addressing, in the shape of the England captain. But if City do or do not get hold of him this summer, not much changes. Over the past 18 months, Kane has changed his role as Spurs’ leading man into a false nine of sorts, dropping deep to provide perfectly-weighted through-balls for Son Heung-min as their relationship blossomed. 

If he does join City, it will be an easy fit to slot into their front line. The Grealish false nine experiment would be put on pause and he would be shifted out to the left-hand side, or dropped into a deeper central role. But if City can’t get hold of him, they have no reason to worry.

This could be the beginning of Barcelona 2.0. The return of the false nine? 

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