The sense has long been that manager Pep Guardiola prefers forwards who can play in at least two positions, with the Leicester City signing capable of operating across the front three, although most devastatingly from the right flank
Signing of Riyad Mahrez fits the Manchester City blueprint
It was not the most dramatic transfer concluded on Tuesday. Cristiano Ronaldo has a capacity to overshadow everyone else, including Riyad Mahrez. Yet there felt something significant in the reality that Manchester City recruited Leicester City’s Algerian on the day that Juventus paid £100 million (Dh486m) for a 33 year old.
Once, the automatic assumption was that City would compete for the biggest names at the biggest prices. Now their transfer policy is rather different. Even record buys, as Mahrez is, are not designed as statement signings, but to fit a blueprint.
Perhaps the most revealing quote may have initially appeared among the most innocuous. “He beats defenders and creates space,” said City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain. Creating space is a major part of an attacker’s role in a Pep Guardiola team. Impressive as Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane’s scoring statistics were last season, that only reflected part of their duties. Mahrez is a technician, but he will be charged with defence-stretching selfless running.
His signing forms part of a wider strategy. City have long concentrated on two signings this summer: a winger and a holding midfielder. It displays a consistency of thought that reveals long-term planning. City wanted Mahrez in January. A deal could not be concluded then so they resurrected the move in July. In that respect, his arrival bears similarities with that of Aymeric Laporte, initially identified 18 months before he actually joined.
City’s focus switched to Mahrez when they cooled their interest in Alexis Sanchez. Part of the Chilean’s appeal was his ability to operate across the front three. The sense has long been that Guardiola prefers forwards who can play in at least two positions. Mahrez had occasional outings as a No 10 for Leicester but played usually, and often devastatingly, on the right, cutting infield. It will be intriguing if Guardiola tries him on the left or as a false nine or whether his signing means the versatile Sterling is deployed more elsewhere.
Initially, anyway, it is easy to imagine Mahrez slotting straight in for Sterling, whose World Cup exploits should mean he misses the start of the season. Perhaps it is no coincidence that City bought a player (and, in Jorginho, have pursued another) who has not spent a summer in Russia. Players on World Cup duty made 88 per cent of Premier League starts for them last season; had Germany called up Leroy Sane, it would have been 95 per cent. Guardiola may be grateful Jogi Low overlooked the PFA Young Player of the Year. He could still be short-staffed in August.
And yet Mahrez is not just a short-term signing. One theory was that he and Wilfried Zaha were in a private contest last season for the unofficial title of the best player outside the top six. The numbers suggest the Algerian deserved it. Only five players were in double figures for both goals and assists in the Premier League last season and City now have three of them: Mohamed Salah and Christian Eriksen are outnumbered by Sterling, Sane and Mahrez. Two years earlier, as he scored 17 times and created another 11 goals in Leicester’s title-winning campaign, he was the sole man with that distinction.
He brings the determination to play for City that the new champions want in recruits and a track record of productivity. He also brings something to elude City’s otherwise all-conquering team: the PFA Player of the Year trophy, which he won in 2015/16. Kevin de Bruyne was the runner-up last season, but the silverware should act as a reminder of the calibre of the newcomer.