There were four minutes to play as Jack Grealish left the pitch. Manchester City were still deep in the boiler room, seeing out a 1-0 lead in a game they had for long periods dominated to a strangulating degree. But there was time still for a round of hand-clasps, back-pats and buttock slaps, the most significant from his replacement Raheem Sterling, who had sat for 85 minutes watching Grealish produce a quiet masterpiece on the flank that had been Sterling’s own private strip of turf for long periods last season.
There was nothing from Pep Guardiola, although Grealish did sneak an eager, lingering look at the maniacal figure in black, who was at that moment caught up with whirling his arms and barking out assorted thoughts, ideas, tweaks, fears, counter-theories.
The debrief will come later. But Grealish knew he’d been good here, romping about like a handsome 1930s public schoolboy, brain whizzing, calves popping with balletic power, always looking for a moment, a sliver of space.
City signed Grealish to offer a tangible point of difference and it is a fine state of affairs when a club can afford to spend £100m on marginal gains, altered angles, a grace note that makes the piece. But that is exactly what Grealish gave at Stamford Bridge with a performance of fearless, toe-to-toe attacking drive in his first Premier League game of this scale.
That influence was there in the winning goal on 53 minutes. Gabriel Jesus, the scorer, will take the headlines. Rightly so: he had a wonderful game. His goal came from City’s 10th corner, most of them forced on Grealish’s flank. This is no great surprise. There is a kind of cruelty in Grealish’s game, in the way he stands up against a defender in those positions, daring them to blink, to let their concentration drop. He really must be exhausting to play against.
Kevin De Bruyne took the kick. The ball was headed up in the air. Finally it fell to Jesus, who was able to turn and shoot low past Édouard Mendy.
It felt like an inevitability. City had dominated this game to a bizarre degree, with 67% possession at that point and 400 passes to the home team’s 200. No matter how expert, how suffocating your lines of defence, eventually some football is going to happen out there
Moments later Grealish almost made it two. Again he simply stood right up close to César Azpilicueta and asked him to dance, dipping one way, sneaking the other and letting off a high-technique stubbed shot, the football equivalent of the one-inch punch, that was deflected just past the far post.
This is what Grealish is for at City. Head up, shoulders squared, mane flapping like a dressage horse, he also lost the ball four times in the opening hour, slowed the play, took an extra touch – but always offered a vital random element to what was for long periods a suffocating game of systems football.
For all the sense of some sky blue machine in action, the same set of ideas relentlessly revolved, Guardiola also has a liking for sparks of difference. Riyad Mahrez offers this too. And here Grealish even added some old-fashioned needle, squaring up to Azpilicueta and, judging by the body language, suggesting a personal rendezvous a little later behind the medical centre.
Stamford Bridge had been a boisterous place at kick-off, as Guardiola began the afternoon with a 5D-chess move, putting out what was on paper a pretty orthodox starting XI, featuring a genuine holding midfielder in Rodri and normal-ish centre forward in Jesus.
Except, of course, there was a twist – cut to Pep in crumpled rain mac, turning in the doorway, and just, one last thing – with Phil Foden acting as the central striker and Jesus on the right.
Thomas Tuchel responded with a selection containing five defenders, two defensive midfielders, and only two footballers who might reasonably be expected to score a goal, one of whom, with all due respect, was Timo Werner. And this was how the game played out in the opening minutes, as City enjoyed something close to total control.
Tuchel could be seen leaping up on his touchline throughout the half, urging his midfield to play higher up the pitch. But Chelsea remained a constricted presence, the footballing equivalent of a man with something stuck in his throat still gamely trying to deliver his keynote speech.
Through all this Bernardo Silva had a wonderful, ferreting game in central midfield, showing again what a brilliantly versatile player he is and working well in tandem with De Bruyne. The beauty of Grealish in this mix is he also does De Bruyne things, taking a little of that creative, tempo-setting burden.
There was link-up between the two here, and a sense of a pooled playmaking sense. It will be fascinating to see how Guardiola tinkers with this – and he will refuse to see a player of Grealish’s quality as settled on one flank. Central Grealish, false nine Grealish, wandering Grealish: this will all surely come. Here his boldness on the left was a fine blend with the bustle of Jesus and a vital point of difference throughout.