In basic terms, the reigning Premier League champions’ purchase of a former PFA Footballer of the Year, for a club record fee, was clearly a huge statement of intent. But when Manchester City completed the signing of Riyad Mahrez in the summer, there was a legitimate question about his precise role in Pep Guardiola’s starting XI.
After all, City had just won the Premier League with a record 100 points, courtesy of a side based around two outright wingers, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, stretching the play. This was arguably the most fundamental part of City’s attacking approach, and when Guardiola occasionally played Bernardo Silva — a left-footed midfielder, always coming inside — on the right flank, more for the sake of rotation than tactics, City’s attacking wasn’t quite so dynamic.
Mahrez was a curious fit. Somewhere between an inverted winger and a No. 10, the Algerian was a dribbler accustomed to playing on the counter-attack and carrying the ball directly towards goal, and the outside-right position at City demanded entirely different characteristics. So far, though, Mahrez has proved his worth. After a slow start at the Etihad, where he was gradually eased into the side, now Mahrez is increasingly looking like one of City’s key players. His tactical role at City can be summarised concisely by assessing the nature of his four league goals so far.
Mahrez scored two in a 5-0 thrashing of Cardiff City, one in a 5-0 victory over Burnley, and then came his first major goal for City, the winner in Monday’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur. Those four goals, stylistically, can be divided into two; Mahrez has scored two pairs of identical goals.
His second strike against Cardiff, and his late goal against Burnley, were the type of goal we’ve come to expect from left-footed right wingers, strikes that can now be described, and universally understood, as Arjen Robben-esque.
Against Cardiff, Mahrez collected a loose ball on the edge of the box, cut inside by using the outside of his favoured left foot, and then whipped a shot into the far corner. His goal against Burnley was a more elegant variation: collecting a forward pass from Fernandinho, 25 yards out in an inside-right position, Mahrez touched the ball once with the inside of his left foot, then three times with the outside to work the ball into a shooting position, opened out his body, before majestically bending the ball into the top corner. Joe Hart didn’t move. It was the archetypal goal from an inverted winger.
But playing purely in that manner would mean City losing their most prolific route to goal from last season. Time and time again, City unlocked opposition defences through Sane and Sterling, with one winger charging down the outside, sending a low cross into the box, and the other winger arriving at the far post to convert, often into an open goal.
And, sure enough, Mahrez’s other two goals have been scored in exactly that manner. His first goal against Cardiff came when Sterling, usually the man playing the final pass, took up an inside-left position and fed the overlapping Ilkay Gundogan, who rolled the ball across the 6-yard box for Mahrez to tap home.
Then came Monday. Ederson’s long goal kick forced an error from Tottenham right-back Kieran Trippier, who first misjudged the high ball, and then allowed himself to be beaten easily down the outside by Sterling, who cut the ball into the area to find Mahrez steaming in, converting into an empty goal after Hugo Lloris had been dragged towards Sterling.
That, then, provides the answer to the question of Mahrez’s role at City, and whether he would play his own natural game or fulfil the previous template for a City winger: He’s doing both, blending the old with the new.
One consequence of Mahrez’s role on the right flank has been Sterling’s switch from the right to the left, which hasn’t caused any problems. In fact, Sterling’s four goals have been, like Mahrez’s, scored in two pairs. He’s hit openers in victories over both Arsenal and Newcastle United by cutting inside from the left and shooting with his favoured right foot, and he’s also scored goals straight from last season’s playbook, against Fulham and Brighton, tap-ins when coming inside to meet passes from Sergio Aguero and Sane respectively.
Sterling, much like Sadio Mane upon Mohamed Salah’s arrival at Liverpool, deserves great credit for adjusting to the opposite flank without any fuss, which owes much to his status as among the most ambidextrous footballers in the Premier League. Statistics published by The Times this weekend show that, of players who have taken more than 100 shots since the start of 2016-17, only Chelsea’s Pedro has taken a higher proportion of shots with his weaker foot than Sterling’s 41 percent.
In turn, Guardiola’s deployment of wingers on the “wrong” flanks — although it’s now far more common to see wingers fielded in this manner — has opened up space for City’s rampaging full-backs.
Benjamin Mendy’s overlapping has played a major part in City’s attacking this season; no one has recorded more than his five assists, despite the fact he missed three matches through injury. It’s difficult to imagine him overlapping so successfully with Sane stationed permanently on the outside of the opposition full-back. Sure enough, three of Sane’s four starts came in the three games Mendy missed through injury.
The new-look City, in a sense, all stems from Mahrez’s arrival. Yet despite his positive impact, he remains culpable for the season’s most decisive mistake so far. Most observes still anticipate a two-horse race between City and Liverpool for the title, and Mahrez’s wild penalty miss in a goalless draw at Anfield may therefore prove decisive at the end of the season. It’s Mahrez who has improved City’s football, but also Mahrez who will get the blame if they fall short. More than anyone else at Guardiola’s disposal, Mahrez will be hugely determined to finish the campaign as a champion.