Mahrez, Jesus and Sterling – did Man City keep the wrong winger?
Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling were sold during the summer while Riyad Mahrez was given a new deal. Pep Guardiola insists he made the right call.
Riyad Mahrez made his 200th appearance for Manchester City in the Champions League victory over Copenhagen on Wednesday night.
But after a blistering start to the season by the Premier League champions, the Algerian was about the only player to go into the game with something to prove.
The 31-year-old had surprisingly failed to register a goal or assist in City’s opening 11 matches despite the club scoring a remarkable 36 goals.
And, ahead of adding another five goals to that tally with another comfortable victory, Pep Guardiola publicly challenged his player to get back to his best, explaining that he needed Mahrez to re-establish himself as a viable option in attack.
After the usual Erling Haaland show in the first half, Mahrez did make an impact – with a calmly-taken penalty and then a delightful run and pass for Julian Alvarez.
So, he was understandably in good spirits afterwards: “Two hundred games is a lot to be fair. It’s good, but I wish for another 200 to play and keep going, scoring, assisting, winning titles with this team because, at the end of the day, that’s what we play for.”
Copenhagen weren’t the toughest of opponents, though, and it’s not yet clear if Guardiola feels Mahrez did enough to retain his place in attack for Saturday’s Premier League clash with Saturday, for what would be just his third Premier League start of the season – and first since August.
The problem is that City’s other attacking options are flying right now.
Jack Grealish is looking more and more like the swaggering superstar that cost a British record £100 million, even if his lowly goal contribution statistics don’t necessarily suggest so.
Meanwhile, Phil Foden has made a seamless switch from the left flank to Mahrez’s right wing without any impact on his efficacy.
The 22-year-old already has six goals, including a hat-trick in last weekend’s Manchester Derby, as well as two assists.
Both Grealish and Foden seem to have struck up a strong relationship with new talisman Haaland, whose numbers since since arriving from Borussia Dortmund this summer – 19 goals in 12 appearances – are beyond ridiculous.
His only two goalless starts were the Community Shield defeat to Liverpool and the win over Bournemouth, and Mahrez started both games.
The latter was also substituted in the victory over Crystal Palace with City trailing 2-1 – a minute later, Haaland scored the first of a hat-trick to turn the game on its head.
Similarly, City were losing at home to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League when Mahrez was replaced. The hosts went on to win 2-1 thanks to an acrobatic late winner from Haaland.
None of this means that the pair can’t play together, of course. But certainly haven’t hit it off yet.
Mahrez can be a player to slow attacks down, stretching defences with his wide wing play, but City have often played with more urgency since the arrival of their Norwegian No.9.
But Guardiola is confident that Mahrez will rise to the challenge now facing him.
“He has to come back in a better physical condition,” the Catalan coach said before the Copenhagen victory. “If he does, he will return to his best form.
“In terms of personality, quality, ability, his love for this game and how he enjoys to play, he is very important for us. So, step-by-step, he’s going to come back.”
Grealish and Foden’s participation in the World Cup is one reason why Guardiola will want Mahrez at his best as soon as possible.
The extent of the England duo’s involvement in Qatar remains uncertain, but it is not inconceivable that both could end up starting, perhaps either side of Harry Kane, given the Three Lions’ stuttering form of late.
Regardless, the tournament could take plenty out of Grealish and Foden, even from a mental perspective, so Guardiola will be glad in a way that Mahrez – just like Haaland – won’t be involved.
Mahrez could well be one of the first names on the team sheet when the Premier League resumes on Boxing Day, given those coming back from Qatar may well be eased back into action.
However, the other big reason why Guardiola needs Mahrez to rediscover his very best form is City’s distinct lack of alternatives up front, after allowing both Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling to leave in the summer.
This time a year ago, Jesus insisted he wanted to be considered a winger and he made a strong start to the season on the right-hand side with five assists and two goals from his first eight Premier League appearances before Mahrez regained his spot.
It was only when Jesus lost his place in the Brazil squad that he wanted to go back to being a striker, so, when Haaland agreed to move to the Etihad Stadium, it made perfect sense for him to move to Arsenal.
Jesus has been a revelation at the Emirates and has benefitted from a fresh start after failing to oust Mahrez from the starting line-up.
Similarly, winger Raheem Sterling had grown impatient with his lack of regular game time and, again, it made sense for City to let him leave, given the England international, just like Jesus, only had a year left on his contract.
Mahrez was in the same position but he was given a new three-year deal during the summer, with Guardiola having no concerns about his future at the club.
So, did City make a mistake? Jesus has been integral to Arsenal’s ascent to the top of the Premier League, while Sterling hasn’t settled quite as quickly at Stamford Bridge, his numbers (four goals and two assists) are still superior to those of Mahrez.
Guardiola is adamant that he and the club chose the right winger.
“I cannot teach him anything because he is too good,” he said. “He knows it and I know Riyad perfectly. We need him.”
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