Riyad Mahrez joined Manchester City as their club-record signing in the summer of 2018, but that was only after four failed bids from the then-defending champions and a week of missed training with Leicester City, as he went AWOL.
Expectations were, therefore, quite high, but that was not something the Algerian international was used to. He had spent his early days in the lower leagues of France, even turning down a move to Paris Saint-Germain or Olympique Marseille as he joined Ligue 2 club Le Havre’s academy in 2010. After four years in Normandy, Mahrez was scouted by Leicester City (while monitoring Le Havre for a different player), who signed him for about €500,000.
After a slow start to life in Leicester, the tricky winger hit his stride at the right time – the fabled 2015/16 season. He became the first African player to be named PFA Player of the Year as his 17 goals and 11 assists led Leicester to an impossible league title. Those performances naturally attracted attention from all over Europe, but it took 18 months and three transfer windows’ attempts to leave before that interest materialised, and his new home was in Manchester.
As is traditional for any Pep Guardiola signing, Mahrez was eased into the first team during his debut season where his numbers read half as well as they had done in Leicester, but his Manchester City career soon picked up pace as he became an important player in the initial stages of the 2019/20 season. However, a poor start to the 2020/21 season seemed to derail his momentum, but he has been on fire lately, more than making up for the second half of 2020.
Mahrez’s recent upturn in form has been well-recognised too – he was named Manchester City’s Player of the Month in February – so let us break down the factors that have led to his resurgence in the last month and a half.
Positioning and Ball Control
Although impossible to prove statistically due to its subjectivity, it is hard to refute that Mahrez has the best first touch in the Premier League, which is silkier than the sand dunes found in the Sahara.
He makes it look too easy; calmly watching a ball fizzing towards him, sticking a left leg out, and the next thing you know, the white blur is standing in motionless reverence below the Algerian wizard’s feet. What we can definitively analyse, though, is his positioning.
Manchester City’s current system involves the use of a front-five. Mahrez is always on the extreme right here, looking to stretch the opposition defence by staying close to the touchline.
He stays wide even if the ball is on the opposite flank, meaning that he has space and time to receive crossfield passes.
The Algerian winger’s other-worldly first touch helps quite a bit here, as he can kill the ball dead at his feet before the opposition full-back comes out to meet him. After this is done, he can pull out his bag of tricks, which we will discuss later. Mahrez’s wide positioning also helps him get in behind opposition defences.
This even works against a back-five, as you can see here. The 30-year-old winger starts off by making an angled run in behind the defence on the right to receive another crossfield pass.
Then, it’s time for him to use his illegally good first touch to control the ball on the move, knocking it forward in the process. In this way, he gets past the defender without having to beat him one-on-one.
This helps him get into a position where he can fizz a cross across the face of goal, which is quite obviously turned in.
Mahrez likes to drop deep quite often too, moving into positions where he can receive passes from the centre-backs or holding midfielder. Further, this serves to drag the opposition left-back out of position, opening up a pocket of space for the Manchester City right-sided midfielder to drift into. Bernardo Silva is best-suited for this due to his abilities as a right winger.
Such movements also help facilitate the advance of the right-back, although that is only possible when Mahrez plays with a normal full-back behind him and not João Cancelo in his inverted role.
In the build-up to Manchester City’s second goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers, the 30-year-old Algerian received the ball wide on the right, dribbling backwards and infield to reach this position. Meanwhile, Kyle Walker used his pace to burst into the space he vacated, receiving Mahrez’s through pass and using it to set Gabriel Jesus up, albeit indirectly through a deflection.
Good positioning is quite important for a winger’s success, but what matters more is dribbling and one-on-one ability, as wingers are usually faced by full-backs in wide positions even if they receive the ball in space.
Dribbling and One-on-One Ability
Riyad Mahrez’s insane ball control also helps his dribbling, which is again one of the best in the league. His shoes seemingly have magnetic control over the ball, as it never escapes even a yard away from his feet. To add to this, the Algerian international’s balance and quick feet make him unstoppable in one-on-ones, where his trademark flurry of stepovers followed by a rapid change in direction hypnotises defenders of all sorts and leaves them for dead.
As you will notice from the below instances, the preferred method of defending against Mahrez (or any other Premier League-level winger, for that matter) is to stand off and match his movements, which is quite hard in itself. Committing to a challenge, however, is pretty much as good as giving up due to the Algerian winger’s quick feet.
Here, Mahrez notices that the defender is coming in a bit too hot and laterally to be able to stand off him, so he decides to quickly knock the ball forward into space.
He breezed past the defender this way, who had no choice but to pull him down from behind to concede a set-piece and earn a yellow card.
Mahrez typically starts his most threatening dribbles wide on the right wing, looking to isolate an opposition defender (usually a left-back) in the process.
In this case, he drives inside and towards the byline, before pulling out a stepover in an attempt to throw the defender off.
The defender did not buy his dummy, though, so he stuck to his task. With the route down the byline blocked, Mahrez had no choice but to chop inside and look for a crossing opportunity, which he earned with a quick change in direction.
Now for another example of Mahrez’s one-on-one ability, this time with some assistance from a teammate. Again, he starts off wide, isolating the opposition left-back.
This time, though, the opponents double up on him with the left midfielder, making dribbling a bit more difficult.
To combat this, Mahrez receives help from Bernardo Silva (the right midfielder), who makes an overlapping run and drags the opposition left midfielder away. This allows Mahrez to drive inside, and then he pulls out his trademark stepovers.
A couple are enough to throw off the left-back, and the Algerian international finds enough space to deliver a cross. A recent improvement to Mahrez’s dribbling has been that he seriously looks to move to the outside now instead of consistently doing anything and everything to chop onto his left.
That was becoming a bit predictable, as we will see here. After driving the defender back, Mahrez looked to chop onto his left foot.
Pablo Marí saw what was coming, so he went with Mahrez to the inside and was well-positioned to block a shot or cross.
The old Mahrez would have let fly on his left foot, but this time, he cleverly chopped back to the outside, leaving his opponent for dead and getting a great crossing opportunity. This trick has been starting to work wonders for Mahrez – it even forced Luke Shaw into submission.
It started off as a traditional Mahrez dribble – a ball played out wide controlled excellently by the Algerian, who then forced Shaw back with the help of a stepover. Then, he quickly chopped inside.
The full-back anticipated this, so he went with him and seemingly had his angles right. Mahrez loaded a shot anyway, but instead of putting his foot through the ball, he chopped back to the outside.
Shaw could not handle this change in direction, so he momentarily lost his balance and quite literally ended up on his knees. With the left-back out of the way, Mahrez had a simple crossing opportunity on his right. Such dynamism helps plant a seed of doubt in his opponents’ mind, which helps the 30-year-old winger in cutting back onto his left.
In this instance against West Ham, Mahrez starts off with a traditional stepover and quick change in direction to the outside.
He gets there well ahead of the defender, preparing to fizz a ball across the face of goal, which forces the defender to lunge in to stop him while also forcing the opposing defence to drop further back.
However, Mahrez had noticed that there was no free teammate around the six-yard box, so he faked a cross and cut back onto his left foot. With the defender having committed to blocking the ball across the face of goal, the Algerian international has space to cut the ball back to a free teammate, who was in space because the defence had moved backwards to stop the ball across the box, and he ended up scoring with his first-time effort.
Mahrez is pretty handy in tight situations too. Here, he tries to chop inside and away from the left-back, but is closed down by another opponent. The gap between the two Manchester United players is small, but it is enough for Mahrez to knock the ball with his left boot onto his right and wiggle his way through.
This only takes him to another opponent, who falls victim to the same trick. Here is another example of Mahrez’s ability in congested spaces, this time against Southampton.
He starts off by receiving a backheel from Kevin De Bruyne, just about getting to the ball ahead of the defender and getting past him.
Even then, he has defenders on either side, so he decides to chop onto his left foot.
With this, both of the defenders get goalside of him, but the advantage for the Algerian international is that he can get past both of them with one move, so he cuts back onto his right.
The defenders cannot follow his changes in direction again, so he has a nice shooting opportunity on his right foot. Although his shot only came back out off the post, İlkay Gündoğan was there to stab the rebound home. That was a rare occasion when a Mahrez shot did not hit the target in 2021, as he has transformed into a clinical finisher now.
Crossing and Shooting
The marked improvement in Riyad Mahrez’s game which is the main contributing factor to his reascent has been in his crossing and shooting. He always had the ability to cut inside from the left and find the far corner (hence the nickname ‘Algerian Robben’).
But, that was starting to get too monotonous and predictable. Now, though, his work around the edge of the box has a new element of surprise, which has made him truly unstoppable. Here is the trademark Mahrez move as far as shooting is concerned:
The first step (which we have seen numerous times in his dribbling) is to drive the opposing defender back and then quickly chop onto his left.
This swift change in direction usually leaves Mahrez with a bit of time and a gap to shoot from, so he unleashes a curler towards the far corner. Although this particular effort was kept out by Rui Patrício, many other keepers have been far less successful. That is largely down to his recent clinicality and accuracy. He has been doing this since – well – probably when he started playing. The point is, this is not something that he has worked on recently.
For example, he pulled off this exact move to score against West Brom. Step one: Drive the defender back and then chop inside. Step two: Far corner.
With that being said, though, his shooting and finishing have unquestionably improved in his recent upturn of form. His shot conversion rate has shot up to 22.22% in the Premier League since the start of February, while he has been outperforming his xG by 3.5 in the process. This level probably is not going to be sustainable in the long run, but there can be no doubt that his improved accuracy is a key factor behind these numbers.
His goal against Everton was a prime example of his brilliant finishing, as he took on a first-time shot from the edge of the box and placed into the far corner, with the ball going in off the post.
The Algeria international did something similar (albeit from a more central angle) against Southampton.
Another example of Mahrez’s improved composure in front of goal came against Wolves, when he pounced on a loose ball in the 90th minute and guided it into the bottom corner first-time. Mahrez’s crossing – particularly his lobbed balls to the far-post region – has improved significantly too.
His quick feet help here, as they help in creating that half-a-yard of space to deliver a threatening ball into the danger area. In this instance, the Algerian international feints to go to the outside, but ends up chopping back onto his left foot.
With a small window created to squeeze a cross through, he wraps his leg around an inswinging delivery, which is nodded in at the back-post (although the broad shoulders of Aymeric Laporte were later deemed to be offside by VAR due to Bernardo Silva’s minor flick). Mahrez has also honed the ability to deliver such inswingers from a deeper position.
Once again, he sends a pinpoint ball around the six-yard box, where two of his teammates are poised to attack it. More importantly, though, Mahrez has worked hard to improve his right-footed deliveries.
Here he is fizzing a ball across the face of goal after making an overlapping run to the byline, with his low cross being flicked narrowly wide of the post by Raheem Sterling. The ability to pose a serious threat with his right foot has also helped the Algerian massively in his one-on-ones, as defenders now have to also worry about him darting to the byline and pulling the ball back across the face of goal while obviously being too scared to allow him to get back onto his left.
All the aspects of Mahrez’s game that we have discussed culminated amazingly in his assist for Raheem Sterling’s only goal against Arsenal. First, his wide positioning, which enables him to receive a crossfield ball from Rùben Dias.
He brings the ball under his spell with another world class first-touch (which even warranted an entire article from The Athletic‘s Sam Lee).
With Kieran Tierney isolated, Mahrez could use his wide array of tricks to try and get past the defender. His first weapon was a simple stepover.
Tierney did not buy it enough, but Mahrez took a touch to the outside anyway, dragging the Scotsman in that direction.
Then, he used his quick feet to chop back to the inside. This opened up enough space for him to deliver a cross, which was a pinpoint delivery to Sterling.
It is safe to say that Riyad Mahrez has been one of Manchester City’s best players in the last two months, although he probably has not been given the credit he deserves by fans and pundits alike. The Algerian international has elevated his game to the next level, becoming almost unplayable on the right in Manchester City’s equally-unstoppable system. In that period, he has formed a very strong partnership on the right with Bernardo Silva, as the Portuguese midfielder’s hard work both on and off the ball helps Mahrez excel even further.
The ex-Le Havre man has added an element of unpredictability to his game which makes him near-unstoppable. Now, defenders can neither let him go to the byline for fear of letting a ball flash across the face of their goal, but absolutely cannot let him chop onto his left foot, as that guarantees a pinpoint cross or a guided curler to the top corner.
Along with this, he has found greater composure and clinicality in front of goal, and all of these factors have come together to contribute to a crucial run of form for the 30-year-old winger. Mahrez’s initialisation into Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City was undoubtedly slower than expected, but he is well and truly here now, and should prove to be a key player not just in the coming months, but also for the next couple of years.
By: Neel Shelat
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pool – Getty Images