“You have to respect the choices of the manager. We are professionals and if the manager thinks [the other wingers] are in good form, you have to respect it and when he needs you, you have to give everything. Do that, and the goals and assists will come.” – Riyadh Mahrez
With having won the PFA Player of the Year 2016 against all expectations for Leicester City and inspiring not only his country but also the entire continent of Africa, Riyad Mahrez has been reduced to a small fish in a huge pond at the Etihad Stadium.
The Algerian was a sensation who caused shockwaves around world football in the 2015/16 season. He was the major driving force which led Leicester City to win their first and only Premier League title. His tally of 17 goals and 11 assists was rightfully merited with one of the great individual honours which can be bestowed upon a Premier League player, i.e, the PFA Player of the Year.
You know you’re having a good season when you win the award for the best player of the season ahead of esteemed company such as the likes of Mesut Ozil, Dimitri Payet, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy. The talented winger even went on to beat his fellow teammate, N’Golo Kante, who won the award next season for his incredible performances in the blue of Chelsea.
Mahrez was absolutely untouchable in his second, full season at Leicester, playing on the right flank; the winger always had an impulse to cut inside and switch over to his magical left foot, from where he could work wonders. Jamie Vardy supplied the firepower along with Mahrez and in the process, the flying Foxes emerged triumphant against some of the biggest teams England had to offer in Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester City. The team who had finished 17th in the previous season went on to be crowned as the champions of England and had truly caused one of the greatest moments in the history of not only the football but sport as a whole. The Leicester City fairy tale is one of the greatest sporting stories ever witnessed, exhibiting that Goliath does not always triumph over David.
It is still one of the finest sights when the inverted winger comes in on his left foot and tries to bamboozle his opponents. Sadly though, his magic seems to have worn off for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Labeled by many as a one trick pony, Mahrez attempts to cut inside with the ball way too many times for his liking, with defenders fully aware of his dash, poise and the threat that will befall them if they let him in.
It is also imperative to note that Leicester City are still a relatively small club, and even though the manner in which he left the club may be termed as disgraceful, he has still inarguably acquired legend status. A unanimous decision even among the Leicester City faithful is that he is their greatest ever player; although his controversial actions have no doubt dampened the estimation of their once beloved star man.
Bought for just £400k from Le Havre in the French second division, the Algerian proved to be 150 times the amount Leicester paid for them after he tried to force a move to the eventual champions Manchester City in the 2017/18 season; much to the fans’ displeasure of his then, current club.
His £60 million transfer to Manchester City made him the Sky Blues’ most expensive signing in history. Still 8 months into his stint at the Etihad Stadium, Mahrez is a shadow of himself in City colours. His tally of 13 goals and 6 assists in 41 appearances is no doubt impressive at this stage of the season, but many of his goal involvements have been in fixtures against relatively lesser opposition; 7 of them have been against lower league opposition like Newport County, Rotherham United, Oxford United, and Burton Albion. Scoring only once against Spurs in 8 appearances against the top six, the rest of his Premier League tally consists of goals against Cardiff, Burnley, Watford, and Bournemouth.
The Algerian was never going to find it easy to cement his place in the starting line-up for the English football’s one and only centurions. With Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane as competition on the wings, City’s number 26 failed to get even a minute of Premier League action in January, with most of his appearances coming in the FA Cup and EFL Cup fixtures.
A starting position seemed pretty nailed on for Mahrez during his time at Leicester, but the forward last played the full 90 against Watford in early December, delivering a Man of the Match performance, arguably his best in a City shirt till date.
A moment he most definitely would want to forget came at Anfield, where the champions had failed to muster a win in the last 15 years. The 2016 African Player of the Year had the opportunity to end this hoodoo as Leroy Sane won a penalty, very late into the game. Unfortunately for him, he skied it, high into the Kop with the game resulting in a 0-0 draw. The fixture still has to this day, huge repercussions in the title race.
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An air of uncertainty among the Manchester City faithful still remains towards Mahrez, with the Algerian not helping the cause; delivering sub-par performances for Pep Guardiola’s side time and time again. Especially in the business end of the season with his team still fighting on all four fronts, Pep cannot afford to make any mistakes by starting him. Preferring Sterling or Bernardo Silva on the right flank sits well with the City fans, who feel that they offer more to the squad than the Algerian international who seems to slow down the play every time the side initiates a counter charge with his languid style of play. It just feels that he has not yet settled into the squad, and is not on the same wavelength as his teammates, who are well equipped with City’s fast and fluid playing philosophy.
Mahrez’s last two performances for City have defined his short and somewhat underwhelming stint in a nutshell. Starting ahead of the in-form Bernardo Silva, the Algerian was simply woeful against West Ham, misplacing passes, making poor decisions in the final third and miserably failing to combine with De Bruyne on the right flank. Unsurprisingly, Guardiola brought on his trusted star to replace the disappointing Mahrez in the early quarters of the second 45 and Silva’s guile inside the box won him a penalty which was eventually converted by Sergio Aguero.
However, redemption was on the former Le Havre man’s mind as he scored a scrappy winner for the Citizens to beat an extremely conservative Bournemouth and grab the all-important 3 points. Villain one day, hero another. Mahrez is certainly the most polarizing player in the City squad. While a certain section of supporters see hope in a player who clearly has heaps of potential, another school of thought is that he simply lacks the world-class decision making and know-how in the key areas to compete for a spot in a squad of such high caliber.
The Citizens sympathise with their number 26, knowing full well the threat that he possesses, they are eager for Mahrez to create a spectacle at The Etihad Stadium, much like he once did in 2016 which resulted in a 3-1 victory for his team for the eventual champions Leicester City.
Mahrez’s debut season is reminiscent to those of Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva, two wide men who showcased moments of sheer magic, but as a whole, they were expected to grow leaps and bounds to stake a starting position in a side whose targets know no bounds. Although there are positive signs for the wide man, who is well on course to rack up more goals and assists than either of his teammates in their first season.
“It’s so important for (Mahrez), the first one for the team. He has to know he has to compete with Bernardo [Silva] and [Raheem] Sterling, he has to be ready. If he is positive and thinks ‘okay my time is going to come’ then his time is going to come because there are a lot of games. I have no doubts about his quality, his mentality is aggressive but he has to understand where he is: a team that got 100 points and every single game fights and runs and plays, and the people in front are one of the most important players of last season in Leroy, the best player in the league in Bernardo and an incredible player in Raheem.” – Pep Guardiola
It is, however, evident that the underwhelming performances stem from a lack of confidence, with his manager fully aware of what he is capable of. You have to be a special player to be the most expensive signing for a manager who has won 26 trophies in just over a decade.
Mahrez’ goal against Bournemouth sealed the three points for the reigning champions in a 1-0 away victory, which took them one step closer to Premier League glory as the league leaders. The Citizens are optimistic that this may be a turning point for the former player of the season, and he may step up to the plate as favorable fixtures against Watford and Fulham are on the horizon. This might just be the beginning of a new chapter for the Algerian, where he can silence his critics once and for all and cement his position as a starter for one of the greatest sides in Premier League history.
Edited by Srinivas Sadhanand
Feature Image via Sky Sports