Mahrez on City’s right-wing offers variation, but is there room for criticism?

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There is great flexibility to Manchester City’s tactics, and the signing of Riyad Mahrez during the summer transfer window bolstered the cards in Pep Guardiola’s hand. The winger has featured in all of Manchester City’s opening eight Premier League games*, starting three, most of which on the right-side of midfield.

Mahrez, who made his league debut on the opening weekend of the season against Arsenal, started on the right, which meant Raheem Sterling was moved to the left-wing. This offered City another option for how to deploy wide players. Two inverted wingers with different runs from full-backs. Perhaps as a result of Kevin de Bruyne’s early season rest and injury as well as Mahrez’s signing, Bernardo Silva has played in a more central positions – as an no.8 and slightly deeper alongside Fernandinho. Bernardo offers nimble footwork, is great in 1v1s, is a good passer and is industrious, also.

It is important to note, however, that Mahrez has since his arrival, offered a potential issue for City in finding the right balance, and though this is not a major concern or dent in anything that City aim to achieve this season, it is an issue that can be discussed.

Now, you could argue that the use of Mahrez has been very good for City on the right-side, considering matters including City’s form, how quickly Mahrez has adapted and how well he has functioned in particular game plans, notably against Liverpool. For the 0-0 draw against title challengers Liverpool, Guardiola altered his tactics somewhat, in that City played a much more conservative game, playing less risky passes and almost defending with the ball. By this, I mean being far more patient in build-up, trying to find the right spaces to play the ball into. The opposition cannot score without the ball, you know.

As previously mentioned, Bernardo Silva even played in a slightly deeper midfield role alongside Fernandinho with David Silva drifting further forward closer to Sergio Aguero as a no.10 and both were pivotal to how City approached the match. The Portuguese was excellent in supporting build-up on the right-side, whilst the Spaniard’s positioning alone was an issue for Liverpool’s press in areas between defence and midfield.

A return to the sorts of matchplans that were common during Guardiola’s stint at Bayern, particularly during away fixtures in the Champions League. In these fixtures, rather than start with a high intensity and trying to dominate the opponent from the first whistle, his teams take a more measured and gradual approach toward getting into the match, taking the first moments to adjust to their opponent’s tendencies and see which spaces will be most available to attack. In addition, the structures that were implemented in these matches had a more stable focus, with emphasis on counter attack prevention and more patience.

An excerpt from Austin Reynold’s analysis of Manchester City’s draw with Liverpool, which offers insight into how and why City played a slightly differing approach.

To return to the original argument, Mahrez was good in supporting right-back Kyle Walker in build-up; Mahrez would drop into deeper spaces to receive the ball as Walker tended to stay quite deep, and was also good in terms of bringing the ball into the centre, attracting Liverpool’s press in doing so. Mahrez’s runs off the ball particularly during the second-half may have been inventive, but in my opinion City lacked necessary penetration and a change of pace on the counter-attack, not only out wide but in breaking through the centre, too, which could have really turned the game on its head. Was this lack of penetration because of City’s game plan, though?

Excluding the match-deciding penalty, Mahrez did also have some of the best chances of match in open play; following excellent play from *David Silva, Mahrez turned past Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson before shooting just past the post. Since his arrival at City, Mahrez has excelled when given the space to bring the ball infield and connect with the midfield players. The movement of Kyle Walker has also varied when Mahrez has started; against Arsenal, Walker was far more adventurous in his overlaps, but tended to stay deeper against Liverpool – was this to restrict opportunities for the Reds to counter, or to give Mahrez more space to obtain possession and carry it forward?

but during situations where Mahrez entered the penalty area, Walker would sprint from his starting position to overlap, moving from the centre circle to the byline in a matter of seconds

Another Reynold’s piece, this time noting on the effectiveness of Walker’s attack-minded runs against Arsenal. 

The way in which Guardiola adapted to Liverpool, who had overcome City more than once last season in both the League and Europe, did mean a difference in how wide players functioned, but even with this, Leroy Sane in a short burst showed why he could/should have started the match on the left-flank – driving down the left-side, meeting David Silva’s well-timed pass bringing the ball into the box and winning the penalty.

I do think that Sane’s pace is very necessary to breaking lines, and although Sterling’s approach to play, and thee way he has scores goals have in a way changed since being moved from the right to the left-wing, I do prefer Sterling on the right-side. His unselfish movement in-field and knack of being in good positions to score vital goals was key to City’s dominance last season. In this case, Sterling and Sane could arguably be the most suited wing duo, especially when Guardiola deploys his typical tactics.

In conclusion, Mahrez is of course an excellent addition in terms of his quality, but City’s games so far this season have left me inconclusive regarding how well he suits the team. Should City have really focused on adding depth to the defensive-midfield position during the summer? And the variation to tactics is excellent to have and should come in handy when rotating for the bigger games; regardless of small criticisms, Mahrez was good and effective against Liverpool, will there be any imbalance to Guardiola’s side?

*Statistics as of 7/10/18

*When David Silva does play closer to the no.9 –  Manchester City’s shape does resemble one that has a conventional no.10 more so. City played an adventurous 4-1-3-2 in the 2-1 against Newcastle United earlier on in the season, for example.


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