Mission Mahrez Is Finally In Full Flight And It’s Time To Sit Up And Take Notice

SRINIVAS SADHANAND | 13th February 2020

The fickle world of film and television can toy with the fates of its finest showmen, turning them from cultural phenomenons to one-tone has-beens that are expected to perpetually throw it back to their greatest hits, even when the actors themselves simply want to carve a new creative identity. Typecasting is the formal term for said plight, where actors are synonymous with a particular role, often iconic that sees audiences’ abandonment issues come to the fore when such legends of the craft decide to move on to fresher projects. Whether that’s Jason Alexander or Michael Cera, imagining these actors as portraying anyone else apart from George Costanza from ‘Seinfeld’ or in the latter’s case, multiple versions of the awkward, yet affable geek borders on incomprehensible for viewers. Shifting this conversation from on-screen to on the pitch, can a similar fate be assigned to Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez?

Let’s face it; the mere mention of Mahrez’s name makes Leicester City’s cinematic Premier League title seem like yesterday. Not to anyone’s surprise as the Foxes did the impossible and the Algerian went from unknown to unstoppable with the snap of a finger, winning the PFA Player of the Year in 2016. Dazzling his way to 17 goals and 11 assists made the Le Havre academy graduate’s triumph as one of the most memorable in the English top-flight, especially considering Leicester’s feat remains one of the greatest sporting achievements in history.

However, have Mahrez’s heroics at the King Power Stadium make him peak in the minds of the English public? The simple answer to that is that there is no simple answer to such a loaded question.

Whatever Mahrez goes on to do, he will always be remembered for leading Leicester to a Premier League title

Much like there’s no smoke without fire, there’s no theory without evidence and Riyad’s redemption at Manchester City is certainly one that has not got the shine it has deserved.

After finally making his blockbuster move to the Sky Blues for a club transfer record of £60million, all eyes were on the Algerian international to elevate his game to unprecedented levels under the best manager in the world and the standout club in the country. There was no shortage of cynics however, as they simply struggled to see Mahrez usurp the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané and Bernardo Silva to do what he does best. No longer was he the top dog at City where bite, more than bark was brought to settle scraps as per standard procedure.

There was basis to the skepticism as 7 goals and 4 assists in 27 league appearances rounded off a disappointing debut campaign for Mahrez, where he had no choice but to resign to a bit-part role as he looked out of his depth in a City shirt. The former Leicester winger’s signature move of cutting in from the right and aiming for the top bins was done to death, his decision-making was woeful and the man went from silky to sullen on the pitch in no time.

The ghost of Mahrez’s appalling penalty miss in the dying embers against Liverpool in an early title-decider followed him the entire season, not doing any favors to his wavering confidence at pastures new.

Mahrez’s horror show from six yards out was not a sight for the sore eyes of the City fans

Despite completing a historic domestic treble at the Etihad Stadium, Mahrez had left a lot to be desired; especially after the world was witness to his artistry in the Midlands. On the international front, there was some respite for the mercurial forward as he had captained Algeria to their first ever African Cup of Nations title since 1990, registering 3 goals in what was turned out to be a dream run to gold.

Yet Mahrez knew more than most that there was still plenty to prove as he voluntarily cut his summer holiday short after the AFCON triumph to return to gloomy Manchester, right in time for City’s opener against West Ham. The Algerian replicated the same drive at the London Stadium, setting Sterling up with two glorious assists, putting on a spectacle for his biggest fans as well as his harshest critics.

Has Riyad Mahrez looked back since? The proof is in the pudding.

As the business end of the season remains to unfold, the 28-year old has already bettered his goal contributions from last season, with 8 goals and 11 assists in all competitions. Only behind stalwarts in the assist charts such as Hakim Ziyech in Europe as well as Kevin De Bruyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold domestically, Mahrez has been a beacon of consistency.

While his numbers speak for themselves, the most marked improvement in Riyad’s game is his decision-making. Slated and rightfully so for his tendency to go for glory with predictable frequency or just blindly putting crosses in the box, Mahrez’s approach has taken a cutting edge turn for the better.

The Algerian’s rocket of a left foot has meant that he has not shied away from taking shots, however his shot zones this season are what Guardiola in particular will take pride in. Instead of taking unnecessary potshots, Mahrez has become more judicious in his shot selection, continuing to focus on what is an obvious strength, yet recognizing the positions on the pitch where he can do the most damage.

According to Understat, Mahrez has registered 30 attempts from the penalty area and 2 from the six-yard box in the 2019-20 campaign. On the other hand, the winger took 37 attempts from the same areas in total (36 from the penalty area and 1 from the six-yard box) for the entirety of the 2019-19 season, signaling the substantial boost in productivity in terms of his spatial awareness. The new and improved Mahrez has scored the most goals outside the box in the Premier League this season (4), without being wasteful and misjudging situations like his formal self would be inclined to.

Another aspect in which the AFCON champion has flourished is against the big boys. Whether it’s Mahrez’s ascent in the Champions League this season or leaving defenders on the floor with his dancing feet against the Premier League’s upper echelon, he hasn’t missed a trick.

His sublime displays against Chelsea, Manchester United in the Carabao Cup semi-final as well as former employers, Leicester are proof of his mettle when he squares up against the very best. Mahrez’s goals are perhaps the common denominator between the three ties, but his supremacy against defenders of the highest order can border on taking the mickey.

Certain whispers in the press have even suggested that City’s intent towards signing Ben Chilwell took considerable steps back when the Englishman was torn apart by Mahrez all evening when the two sides met. Some may class this assessment as harsh, but it was staggering to see one of the country’s most promising left-backs made to look like an amateur at times.

Mahrez ran Chilwell ragged all evening

City’s No. 26’s solo strikes against Chelsea and Aston Villa reflect the wideman at the epitome of his elegance, pulling tricks out of the bag that exude a pinch of arrogance, leaving backlines in a tizzy.

An argument could be made for Sané’s injury-forced absence and Bernardo Silva’s up-and-down campaign making Mahrez an automatic first-choice out wide. However, such takes are short-sighted at best, considering nobody is guaranteed a spot in a Guardiola side. To be in the Spaniard’s good books, ticking a host of boxes is the test and Mahrez has certainly passed that with flying colors this season.

Even Raheem Sterling, as gifted as he is has undergone a drop-off in the past couple of months. Mahrez, on the other hand has shown no signs of slowing down.

It’s high time Premier League fans let go of their nostalgia associated with the Mahrez of the 2015-16 campaign, donning a Leicester shirt and witness him thrive in the blue side of Manchester. Coming from Leicester City, it was never going to be smooth sailing for Mahrez to ease into arguably the most elite frontline in world football. He struggled in his debut campaign, but the Algerian continued to persevere and as things stand, Riyad Mahrez has a strong case to make for emerging as one of City’s best players this season. Imagine saying that when he first donned a different shade of blue in 2018 and one would have been labeled as ‘daft’ or forgiven for being a patriotic Algerian.

Well in, Riyad.