Riyad Mahrez: Man City star’s quality was never in doubt — now he needs consistency

Riyad Mahrez Manchester City

Riyad Mahrez’s poor form has divided Manchester City fans this season but, following his hat-trick against Burnley, has the winger finally turned a corner?

Take yourself back to August — Manchester City had just lost Leroy Sané earlier in the summer, had failed to sign a marquee attacker, and were entering the new campaign with very little rest after a disastrous Champions League exit at the hands of Olympique Lyonnais.

At that time, many fans were left wondering which of the current attacking players would step up and grab the reins vacated by Sané, a player who just about brought everything that is usually required of a Pep Guardiola winger: pace, directness, quality in the final third and, most importantly for the future of the club, potential to be a top five player in the world.

One player who was part of that conversation was Riyad Mahrez. There’s certainly a feeling among City fans that they’re still yet to see the very best of the winger — certainly the sort form that saw him rip up the Premier League in Leicester’s remarkable title-winning campaign of 2015-2016.

We’ve seen glimpses, but it’s been more flash in the pan brilliance than consistent superstar to date. It was felt this could really be his season — a big-name forward leaving a gap in the squad, and a space for someone to fill the void and shine, despite the signing of Ferran Torres.

‘Underwhelming and predictable’ would be the best way to describe Mahrez’s start to the campaign, but also the best way to describe Manchester City’s campaign as a whole. In fact, Mahrez is the physical embodiment of Guardiola’s side: so much potential, so much quality, but no end-product, and struggling to grasp any sort of form.

The Algerian was in and out of the squad, and struggling to gain any sort of consistency in a heavily-depleted forward line that, during many parts of the opening months, didn’t even have a striker to front the attacking three.

Ferran Torres was shining despite many viewing him as a development player, who needed to be eased in, rather than someone to be thrown in at the deep-end and thrust into a striker role.

Riyad Mahrez vs Ferran Torres stats

With every passing game, Mahrez was dropping in confidence and, at some points, seemingly trying too hard to create something in the final third. At times, he found himself frustrating teammates by holding on to the ball for a fraction too long, and looking to create chances by ignoring the support of others.

Indeed, reports in the aftermath of Manchester City’s disappointing draw away at West Ham suggested that his performance had brought teammates to boiling point, as Mahrez was ‘confronted’ by senior players over his playing style and decision making.

Then came Liverpool at home, and a decision that perhaps should have come earlier, but still surprised many — Mahrez was dropped entirely from the squad. Looking back, this was perhaps the decision that rescued the Mahrez City had signed, and the player fans knew he could be.

The former Leicester man was given some time off, and jetted off on international duty with Algeria where, despite facing significantly lesser opponents to that of the Premier League, he was able to grab goals aplenty and simply enjoy his football without the overriding pressure of the media and fans alike.

He returned full of confidence and more like the player you expect him to be, but also with the added bonus of adapting more to Guardiola’s style and requirements for wide players. There was suddenly an added focus on getting more involved in the passing plays to break down stubborn defences, while also playing more directly when presented with the opportunity to take on his man.

Riyad Mahrez vs Spurs

The defeat to Tottenham, at face value, looked as though Mahrez had very little involvement. However, we saw glimpses of what was about to come, which was a version of Mahrez at his scintillating best.

You could argue that his man of the match performance against Burnley was merely down to the opponent, but at the end of the day you can only play what’s in front of you. There was a hunger to score, a desire to beat defenders, and also some interchanging with the attacking midfielders.

There was a drive to get into the penalty area and, ultimately, scoring positions — something Mahrez lacked earlier on in the season, when there was a clear reluctance to get any further or closer to the goal than a standard wide position.

Perhaps this was a change of direction from Guardiola himself, handing his attacking players more freedom and releasing them from the tactical shackles they have often seemed restrained by in the opening few weeks of the season.

Riyad Mahrez xG shot map

The 5-0 win over the Clarets showed City fans exactly what kind of player we have in Mahrez: an incredibly talented footballer on the ball, yes, but also, and possibly more importantly, a goalscorer.

This is the version of Mahrez who is deadly and clinical on the counter-attack, tricky and unstoppable in one-on-one situations, and intelligent enough to read the game and get into scoring positions on multiple occasions.

There’s certainly a feeling that City aren’t far off ‘clicking’ and hitting the goalscoring form we’ve come to expect from a Guardiola’s side. Perhaps this rise in form from Mahrez will be the catalyst in bringing back those deadly and daunting attacking displays of previous campaigns.

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