The Algeria international has returned from the break in rude form, and must now show Guardiola he can lead next season’s title challenge
Even in the knowledge that title celebrations were likely to dull Liverpool’s instincts, there was something surreal about the manner in which Manchester City went about dismantling the Reds on Thursday night.
For Jurgen Klopp and his men, all that is left to play for is the points’ record. The defeat of the Premier League champions at the Etihad may have been brutal, but at least Liverpool still have 18 points to play for. It is not often that such a comprehensive rout in a meeting between first and second in the league feels so hollow.
Doubly disappointing is the fact that we were deprived of the opportunity to observe Riyad Mahrez’s growing influence at Manchester City.
The Algeria international had featured in all four matches for the club since the return of football to English shores, but started on the bench here, only coming on for the final half hour. he generally put himself about, showcasing some neat touches and finishing smartly in stoppage time to momentarily make it 5-0 before the intervention of VAR.
While his extensive involvement since the restart is a nod to his physical conditioning and professionalism, it is also indicative of the fact that, for the first time since joining in 2018, he looks like more just than an interesting option for Guardiola.
There were always concerns over his fit for the highly mechanized, structured style of football which the Catalan espouses. His best football had come as the sole creative outlet for a functional Leicester City side far removed from Brendan Rodgers’ current iteration, and so his improvisation was not only required, but encouraged.
That free-spirited style was, of course, inherently inefficient, but that was a necessary trade-off.
In Manchester, within an orchestra already in tune, Mahrez’s extempore strummings seemed to jar, and so he spent much of his first season lashed to the bench, behind Raheem Sterling (and even Bernardo Silva) in the pecking order.
Having started in 12 of City’s first 24 matches, he only got two more 90s in as the club put together a 14-game winning run to clinch the title in 2019. The implication was clear: he had not yet earned the manager’s trust.
Things have begun to look up, however. Already this season, he has started three more games than he managed in the entirety of last term. Aside Guardiola’s rather droll assessment that the 29-year-old has “no muscles” in his legs (and so is less injury-prone), there are some important factors that have contributed to his establishment within the side.
The first is perhaps the more underrated one. In the summer of 2019, Mahrez captained his country to victory at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt for the first time in 29 years. This historic achievement saw him nominated for the Fifa Ballon D’Or, and in Guardiola’s eyes seemed to take his level up a notch. “He started incredibly well after the African Cup of Nations,” the City boss noted in December.
Just as crucial (for Mahrez, but not so much for the Citizens) was Leroy Sane damaging his knee ligaments against Liverpool in the Community Shield at the start of the season. It was a piece of misfortune that effectively forced Guardiola’s hand; shorn of perhaps his most direct, dynamic wide forward, it became necessary to trust his Algerian maestro a little more. For all his guile, Bernardo Silva, who had often deputized on the right, lacks the same explosive quality.
“[Mahrez] has played more minutes than last year and understands much better,” Guardiola noted.
“I’m satisfied with his performance and with the absence of Leroy there is more space to use the wingers and upfront.”
With Sane agreeing a move to Bayern Munich this summer, Mahrez’s influence can only increase.
He will no doubt be keen to prove himself worthy of the opportunity. His brace against Burnley was a start, but he is only too aware that Manchester City have the resources (and also the will, thanks to Liverpool beating them to the post so comprehensively) to go into the market and replace Sane directly. In order to stave off that possibility, he will need to have a properly transformative impact.
On that front, he could do worse than mirroring Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, both of whom have effectively come to define and embody Liverpool’s attacking play. They were far from their rapier-sharp best on Thursday night, but already their tapestry for the season is woven.
When the Reds sold Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018 without signing a direct replacement, it seemed misguided and hubristic to the utmost. However, Klopp’s side came out of it even stronger by leveraging what was already there and leaning even more strongly into their superstar forwards.
There is a lesson there for Guardiola, but perhaps even more so for Mahrez himself. With Sergio Aguero continuing to creak physically, and Gabriel Jesus again failing to convince when handed a start against the league champions, there is yet another window of opportunity, but the Algerian will have to give Pep something to think about first.
Seizing his chances for the rest of the season would be the strongest audition yet for the chance to lead the City attack as they seek to wrest back supremacy in the league next season.