A left-footed North African right winger with a clinical eye for goal could yet decide everything in the battle for Premier League and Champions League glory this season.
And we’re not talking about Mohamed Salah…
Manchester City have played the majority of the past two seasons without a recognised striker. It hasn’t done Pep Guardiola’s side a great deal of harm, given they cantered to the Premier League title last term and reached a maiden Champions League final.
Yet Guardiola himself has stated his team needs a centre-forward, and speculation linking Borussia Dortmund superstar Erling Haaland continues to mount. It would make for a frightening solution to those times when City occasionally run into goalscoring problems, but in the meantime they will have to keep sharing the burden between a highly-skilled collection of attackers.
Heading into Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid, 17 players have scored for City this season and five are into double figures.
However, one has emerged from the pack: Riyad Mahrez is enjoying the most prolific campaign of his career.
How many goals has Mahrez scored this season?
The Algerian superstar’s strike to seal a 4-1 FA Cup win at Southampton prior to the international break was his 22nd of 2021/22. His previous best was 18 across all competitions, when his Leicester sensationally won the 2015/16 Premier League title.
Mahrez is now gunning for a fourth winners’ medal in England’s top flight, and any trophy City lift come May is likely to have his prints all over it. The 30-year-old’s goals have come from 78 attempts, giving him a shot conversion rate of 28% – the best in the City squad.
“We arrived many times…” is a familiar Guardiola lament when his players create and don’t take chances, but Mahrez doesn’t often need a second invitation.
On the biggest occasions, that cutting edge can prove decisive. Over a quarter of his 22 goals have come in the Champions League, while he’s also netted against Arsenal and Manchester United (twice) in the Premier League.
Straight off the training ground! 💫
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 6, 2022
What is Mahrez’s record in the Champions League?
Mahrez was City’s club-record signing when he joined from Leicester for £60 million prior to the 2018/19 season, but it took him some time to win fans over.
Part of the reason for this was the sense of him not being an entirely necessary purchase – see some of the criticism directed towards Jack Grealish this season – and the fact crowd favourite and fellow winger Leroy Sane appeared to be edging towards the exit door.
An excellent goal on the final day of the season as City beat Brighton 4-1 to pip Liverpool to the title was Mahrez’s 12th of the campaign and he has hit double figures every year he has been at Etihad Stadium.
His breakout performances to finally stand above these solid returns arrived in last season’s Champions League. City would not have reached their first ever final without Mahrez.
In the second half of their quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund – Haaland and all – City were 1-0 down on the night, behind in the tie on away goals and heading out. After an interminable VAR delay, Mahrez confidently strode forward to dispatch a nerveless penalty beyond Marwin Hitz before Phil Foden sealed the victory.
😎 Riyad Mahrez in the Champions League this campaign…
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 25, 2021
Better was to come in the semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain. Back in the city of his birth, the winger squeezed a free-kick through the wall to give Guardiola’s men a 2-1 away win and they rammed home that advantage with a 2-0 triumph back in Manchester.
Mahrez got them both. Those knockout-stage goals accounted for his Champions League total of four last season. He already has six this time around.
Is Mahrez Man City’s best penalty-taker?
The dead-eyed penalty against Dortmund might be the moment when Mahrez truly had lift-off at City, because one swipe of his left boot blew away a cloud that had been hanging over Guardiola’s squad.
In 2019/20, City missed six of 16 penalties won. The return was seven from 11 last time around, with Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling all failing from the spot.
By the time Mahrez stepped up at Signal Iduna Park, plenty of supporters had been calling for goalkeeper Ederson to be given the job.
Indeed, the sight of City’s No.26 standing over the ball did not exactly inspire confidence, with plenty of minds flashing back to him skying a penalty over the bar towards the end of a 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield in 2018. His record with Leicester had also been patchy.
But the successful conversion in Dortmund set in motion a run of eight consecutive penalties buried in club colours, with seven of those coming this season.
Against an Atletico Madrid team who might spend long spells of the quarter-final defending inside their own box, don’t be surprised to see Mahrez’s expertise called upon again.
How does Mahrez compare to Salah this season?
Spot-kicks account for just under a third of Mahrez’s output this season, but he also strikes immaculately from distance and sets up plenty of chances for himself with that implausibly-velvet first touch.
So how does he stack up against the premier operator in his position? Pretty well, as it turns out.
Salah might be out in front with 28 goals this season to Mahrez’s 22, but if we examine their goals-per-90 minutes, there is little to choose between them, with the City man actually fractionally ahead (0.86 versus 0.83).
Let’s enjoy every @Mahrez22 goal from this season! 🇩🇿
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 10, 2022
Guardiola’s right-winger is showing his clinical touch by heavily outperforming his xG (expected goals, based on the quality of chances) of 12.7, with Salah’s haul closer to his 24.3 xG (via FB Ref).
Meanwhile, Mahrez is also more effective on the dribble, winning 51% of his take-ons in the league this term, to his rival’s 42%.
It will be fascinating to see the two icons of North African football facing off against one another when City take on Liverpool on consecutive weekends – in the Premier League this Sunday, and the FA Cup semi-finals six days later.
If, of course, Guardiola decides to pick him.
Will Mahrez start City’s games against Atletico and Liverpool?
It feels obvious that Mahrez should be involved from kick-off when Diego Simeone’s men make their second trip to Manchester this season.
The Liverpool games are less of a cut-and-dried issue. Mahrez did not start the 2-2 draw at Anfield last October and only made a late cameo in the 1-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge a week earlier.
He was also summoned from the bench and scored a penalty in the shambolic 3-2 February defeat to Antonio Conte’s Tottenham. A conclusion can be drawn that when the opposition’s full-backs offer a sustained threat going forward, Guardiola believes his other wide attacking options are more suited to the task.
The ex-Barcelona boss’ demands with regards to defending from the front come more naturally to his colleagues. Sterling has attempted 31 tackles to Mahrez’s 17 this season, amounting to per-90 averages of 1.37 and 0.82.
Phil Foden averages 18.8 pressures on opposition players for each completed game, while Mahrez can only manage 12.2. Guardiola praises Gabriel Jesus’ high pressing, and Grealish’s capacity to make the extra pass in a way he does not when it comes to the Algerian.
That is not to say Guardiola isn’t incredibly fond of his most reliable match-winner. “I try to push him a lot. We struggle together because I know the quality that he has,” the Catalan said last month.
“He is a player that I admire for the way he handles the pressure. He likes to play on the biggest stages and it is difficult to find players like that in top clubs.”
They don’t get much bigger than the boards Manchester City are preparing to tread over the next 11 days, making Mahrez the perfect man for the struggle ahead.