In case anyone was wondering about the composition of Manchester City's squad for the 2020/21 season, Pep Guardiola was at his most emphatic. “Riyad Mahrez will be with us next season and the next one, and the next one,” he said a couple of weeks ago.
And yet that the Algerian’s immediate future felt in doubt was telling. As Mahrez prepares for Monday’s reunion with Leicester, it may be with a watching brief. His tale of two Cities has brought different distinctions. At Leicester, he became the first African to win the PFA Player of the Year award; the classy catalyst for the most improbable of title wins; the man most likely to curl one into the top corner for the 5,000-1 shots.
In Manchester, he has become Guardiola’s costliest fringe figure, the record buy in a £1 billion project but an unused substitute in Manchester City’s last four league games. He has only started three times in the 2019 title push. Mahrez is in a paradoxical position: the only signing for what may be treble-winning side, and yet a man whose impact has been underwhelming.
A season of two clashes
Perhaps not statistically. Plenty of strikers may envy a winger’s record of a goal every 208 minutes in the Premier League this season; include assists and it drops to an involvement in a goal every 139. He has four Champions League assists, even if three came against a dismal Shakhtar Donetsk side.
Eleven goals is a very respectable return, but only the early winner against Tottenham in October ranks as hugely important (though deciders against Watford and Bournemouth could have a significance). Yet as the campaign has progressed, Mahrez, who began many of the major matches in the first half of the season, has become the £60 million sixth-choice forward.
His year threatens to be defined by two defining clashes, and not because of his Wembley tap-in. There was the penalty he skied at Anfield, which would have brought a three-point swing from Liverpool to City and, should Guardiola’s side slip up against the Foxes or Brighton, might yet cost them their crown. And there was his surprise selection at Tottenham in the Champions League; but given everything else that happened in an epic tie, it is simplistic to attribute City’s eventual elimination to Mahrez’s status as a first-leg starter.
But, in itself, it illustrated both his role and how he has become superfluous. Raheem Sterling is City’s most prolific winger, but has switched to the left more often since Mahrez’s arrival. At Anfield in October, Guardiola explained the Algerian’s presence by saying he was the best of his forwards at keeping the ball. Yet when there are sufficient midfielders available for Bernardo Silva to operate in the front three, that distinction belongs to the Portuguese.
Between the cracks
So Mahrez falls between two stools: neither as fast, direct or potent as Sterling and Leroy Sané, nor as accomplished a midfielder as Bernardo. Perhaps his impact at City has been considerable but indirect: maybe his presence has spurred Sterling and Silva on to such an extent that each has enjoyed the best season of his career. The fact they are automatic choices explains his bit-part role.
Perhaps, then, both clubs benefited from his move. Leicester invested much of the proceeds smartly to acquire James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira. City have two of the three best footballers of this year who can operate on the right wing, even if the former PFA Player of the Year is neither of them.
But Mahrez’s travails do prompt questions about whether clubs should pursue their targets from the winter window the following summer. City chased three players in January 2018. One, their long-term target Aymeric Laporte, signed and was superb. Another, Mahrez, eluded them then, but they returned for him.
And the third? Fred is now at Manchester United after City abandoned their interest in him. On a scale of Fred to Laporte, Mahrez is nearer the Brazilian.
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