It’s a testament to how far we’ve come really. Seven years ago; a title-winning squad brimming with talent was also a title-winning squad brimming with characters often vilified by our fans for their sometimes-selfish acts or general lack of effort; Balotelli, Dzeko, Tevez, Nasri to name a few. However, the one common denominator between this group was that the once temperamental attitude we held towards them is now looked back on with an overriding sense of affection and nostalgia.
Despite the irrational red cards, despite the 6-month golfing hiatus in Argentina, despite the ultimate act of cowardice in the final minute of a Manchester Derby; we still look back at those lads fondly because they left their mark on the club.
It’s only fair that Riyad Mahrez is given the chance to do so as well.
At this moment in time it’s very much a hung jury concerning Riyad, and for several reasons I find it hard to malign him just yet. Whether you think his signing was a necessary one or not, he was the only signing we made last summer. This alone is a daunting enough prospect because we’re now a squad out of transition, a squad nearing the full article. Players like Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane were given a considerably larger amount of leeway because they were part of Pep’s plan, and rightly so – for the past couple of years City have been a squad growing in tandem, and now, we’ve set a standard so high that any new signing has that extra coercion to hit the ground running or face immediate backlash.
Rather than explicitly label Mahrez as selfish or greedy, which he has been at times, it is also worth considering for a moment why Pep decided to prioritise his qualities over cover for Fernandinho or a new left back. Ignoring the practical purposes of signing him such as rotation for Sterling and Sane, Guardiola clearly saw something in him that perhaps some of us haven’t. Now whether this was the case or not, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it’s something to do with him being an extremely potent winger who excels at one-on-one dribbling and creating space for himself as well as being a Premier League POTY winner who offensively carried his team (Leicester City) to Premier League glory whilst maintaining his status as a top level player for a further two years at the club despite them being mid-table. He’s not your everyday case of ‘big fish, small pond’.
So, upon joining City, it’s safe to assume Pep would’ve been telling Mahrez to showcase his individualistic talents to the fans as well as respecting the system and its fundamentally unified principles. This is where Mahrez has been seemingly getting those instructions misconstrued in recent months – shooting on sight rather than playing the easy pass, doing that additional unavailing step-over that disrupts the progressive nature of the attack and sends ‘yer da’ hurling his king-size frame down each row of seats to the point of terminal velocity, just so he can call the Algerian a “mard-arse” within earshot. He’s just trying too hard to give the fans what they’ve been anticipating from him and it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s as if he was so used to standing out from a crowd involving Albrighton, Vardy and Gray that it’s become an intrinsic part of him to the point where, in an almost visceral fashion, he feels the need to stand out above the likes of Aguero, Silva and De Bruyne.
This behaviour is what’s rightly frustrating a lot of fans. It’s only accentuated further in a squad that is so telepathic it makes him look like the winner of a charity competition where he gets to play with Pep Guardiola’s formidable side against [insert name of League One minnows] in the Carabao Cup.
The glib truth now is that there’s a section of City fans who’s temper when watching Mahrez is only shortened by their memory of him. When he started at City, sort of August to September time he had a pretty bland start, questions were flying about, but nobody was jumping to conclusions. Then the forgotten period took place, I don’t know about you but between October and November he was really… good? Despite the penalty miss at Anfield he had a more solid game than Sterling has ever had there, after that he scored a beauty at home to Burnley, then he scored the winner in a 1-0 away win at Spurs, then he contributed with goals and assists in two Champions League games against Shakhtar and capped that off with another good display in the Manchester Derby, assisting Sergio Aguero for the second goal. Consequently, he won the Etihad Player of the Month in October. Is this the so-called flop we’re talking about three months down the line?
In a probable attempt to get his confidence back, he’s only played 30 Premier League minutes in 2019 and has been used a lot more heavily in the domestic cups. With a multitude of big games coming up, he’s bound to be reintroduced by Pep to the forefront of the line-ups. All it could take for him to spark the fire is a proper moment. I think back to Samir Nasri’s first season in blue; he was pretty fruitless up until that crunch game at home to Chelsea in which he stepped up to the plate and scored a crucial late winner. It was that moment that really kick started his Manchester City career, and even better – derailed Adam Johnson’s. But that’s all Riyad needs to be told, be patient, play to the teams’ strengths, and it’ll come. He must take this responsibility upon himself of course, which he may well choose to ignore, but for a player that’s achieved what he has in his career, I think it’s slightly foolhardy to write him off just yet.
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