After back-to-back summers of wide-spread recruitment, Manchester City had a quiet 2018 summer by their standards. Outside of signing a couple of young players for minimal fees, City only made one major signing, as they brought in Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City for an estimated £60 million.
Mahrez had arguably been the best player outside of the so-called ‘big six’ for quite some time. He was the chief architect of Leicester’s famed counter-attacking system that won them the title and took them towards the latter rounds of the Champions League. Even with this good record, some, myself included, had some potential concerns about how he would adapt to a new team.
Leicester primarily played on the counter throughout his time there, and he was really the only man capable of penetrating deep blocks. He usually did this with long shots or direct dribbling. Manchester City’s approach to beating deep blocks is a bit more patient and possession based, but the main concern many had was whether he would be able to adapt to a ‘two-touch’ system, over Leicester’s famed one touch. He was also the man he took up nearly all of Leicester’s attacking responsibility in the final third, whereas at City he would be taking a lower percentage of the attacking load.
After 10 games in a City shirt, it is abundantly clear that any Mahrez doubters were very wrong. He has fitted in seamlessly with the club and has five goals and one assist in his last 10 appearances. He is the best dribbler at the club which is remarkable considering the other attacking talent City have, and he has provided something different on the right-hand side.
The most important thing Mahrez has done though is give Pep Guardiola another tactical weapon. City have used him very interestingly in a couple of their recent games, and this is what I will try and outline below.
Most of the time, Manchester City have played with a 4-1-4-1 formation. Last year, Fabian Delph spent most of the season at left back and drifted inside rather than providing an overlap. This meant Kyle Walker often got quite far forward in order to support Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva, who both like to drift inside. This year, that recipe was set to be changed, as Benjamin Mendy returned from a long-term injury. In his lone world-class season at AS Monaco, Mendy was at his best as a marauding wing back in Leonardo Jardim’s 4-4-2 system that put a real emphasis on verticality. There were games where he had more attempted crosses than passes in the final third.
Despite what some think, Guardiola puts a real emphasis on the structure of his teams. City are not an all-out-attack team, they usually leave at least four back at all times, and most of the time it is five players. The presence of Mendy has meant that Kyle Walker has taken up a more defensive role this year, and has become part of City’s famed ‘inverted’ trio alongside the centre backs. Nothing illustrates this better than the crossing statistics of Manchester City this year. Per WhoScored.com, Walker attempts 2.3 crosses per game in comparison to Mendy’s 5.3 per game. Walker is also mostly used as the crossing option on short corners, so his open play crossing numbers are often lower.
What does this mean in regards to Mahrez? Well, it means that there was a void to fill on the right-hand side. Walker gets forward less than he did last year, and if this wasn’t addressed, City would have had a clear tactical flaw in the lack of presence on the right-hand side. Both Silva and Sterling are great, but neither really suit the role Mahrez has been playing this year.
The image above was from City’s set-up vs Shakhtar in the Champions League. On the surface, it looked as if Pep was playing John Stones as a right back. On paper this was true, and on the occasions, City dropped into a defensive phase, he was tasked with the defending the right channel. But in the build-up phase which in honesty is where City do a lot of their unofficial defending, Stones pulled back and Otamendi and Laporte both pushed left, giving City a back three look.
The shape looked like a 3-1-4-2/3-4-2-1 hybrid, with both Mendy and Mahrez hugging the touchline. When Mahrez hugged the touchline, Kevin de Bruyne would often drift into the right channel, which is arguably where he is at his best. City played some excellent combinations between Mahrez and De Bruyne, and Mahrez also put in some excellent crosses throughout the game.
The Algerian’s addition to the squad has meant that City have a more natural winger who can play on that side and hug the touchline, before taking players on. Sterling has some ability as a winger, but he is at his best playing off-the-ball as a ‘Raumdeuter’ type player. Silva also has clear dribbling ability but he is at his best drifting inside and playing combination plays with others.
City had a presence on the right-hand side last year, but it wasn’t necessarily the constant presence that Mahrez has brought to the side. His role takes serious positional discipline and he rarely drifts in to central areas as he did with Leicester. Part of this is likely to limit the number of long-range shots he takes, but Pep’s philosophy at City has generally been to stretch teams constantly with two touchline-hugging players and attack the giant spaces in the defence that this system creates.
City experimented with a traditional winger playing as a wing-back early last year, in the 1-1 draw with Everton. Taking anything from that game was difficult because City went down to 10 men and ultimately changed system, but it was obvious to anyone watching that Leroy Sane was not capable of playing as the wing back that Guardiola played him as. He looked sloppy and constantly gave the ball away due to the isolated nature of the wing back position, and he struggled defensively.
Mahrez is not prime Maldini, but he has looked extremely solid defensively, and it has been a pleasant surprise. In the game against Shakhtar he had seven blocks and five tackles, both were team highs. His four tackles in the win over Tottenham was second only to Fernandinho. Tracking back is not everything for a team in Manchester that actually attacks, but when Mahrez is playing a sort of make-shift wing-back, he has to get back and do his job. He has adapted seamlessly, and it has surprised some people.
For Manchester City moving forwards, this means a great deal. Guardiola now has the kind of tactical weapon that I don’t feel he had throughout last year. He has a player who can start in the core 4-1-4-1 formation but can change mid-game to a wing-back in a back three. He has a player who is at his best playing in wide areas and running at people. It gives City another scary option to put in the wide areas, and though Sterling and Silva are both world class, Mahrez is more of a natural wide player. He is glued to the touchline, and it just creates an obscene amount of space for City’s central players to drift into.
There are times when Mahrez has taken on shots that he probably shouldn’t have, but I do genuinely think he has had good reason for them. Teams are genuinely scared of his ability to cut in, and something City could potentially do more of on the right is to have a central midfield player overlap him. One of the things City love to do as a team is to switch the play, and Mahrez has the direct running ability to make City an immediate threat when the ball is rotated out to his side.
City already had a wealth of tactical options available because Guardiola is a wizard. But the addition of Mahrez opens up so many more possibilities due to his ability to play as a natural winger, and his seamless fit as a wing-back when City go for a more lopsided build-up shape. For City fans, this is very exciting. For fans of every other team in Europe, it’s downright scary.