Of all the players immortalised by Leicester City’s astonishing Premier League title triumph of 2016, Riyad Mahrez looked the most likely to take the next step. Crowned the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the Algerian boasts an inherent creativity in and around the opposition box. Capable of picking a pass through a packed defence or taking a shot from range, it wasn’t much of a surprise that Manchester City came calling in the summer of 2018.
A then club-record transfer fee of £60 million was splurged on Mahrez, but he still found himself as something of a squad figure in his first season at the Etihad Stadium. The Algerian produced when given the opportunity, but Pep Guardiola favoured Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling in the wide positions. The landscape has shifted this season, though.
Indeed, Mahrez has started 20 games for Man City over the 2019/20 campaign to date, contributing nine goals and 13 assists from the right side. Only Kevin de Bruyne has made more key passes for City than Mahrez has this season, with the 28-year-old also among their top five shot-takers.
After something of a slow start to his Manchester City career, Mahrez has earned himself a place in the defending Premier League champions’ starting lineup and is only getting better as he grows more and more comfortable in his role. Mahrez is now proving himself as the perfect Guardiola wide man.
“The difference last season and this season is he [Mahrez] plays more minutes because the manager is more kind to him,” the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss told reporters after City’s 6-1 thumping of Aston Villa, a game in which Mahrez scored twice. “The level he played last season was good too. He loves to play football. You see his legs, it is impossible to be injured because he has no muscles. The final third he has something special, always I have the feeling he can score a goal.”
Guardiola rarely sees wide men as out-and-out wingers. Throughout his career, he has favoured attackers who can cut inside and link up with teammates in and around the opposition box, instead relying on full backs to provide width. Look at how Sterling has changed as a player under Guardiola’s stewardship, finding himself in more central positions than at any other point of his career.
Mahrez’s natural tendency was to cut inside even before he linked up with Guardiola and so his game hasn’t been revolutionised to the extent that Sterling’s has, but the Algerian is nonetheless benefiting from working under a manager who harnesses his strengths.
This season has turned into a transitional one for Man City and the emergence of Mahrez as a key figure has become an important part of that process.