Player Analysis: Riyad Mahrez goes from strength to strength at Manchester City

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Riyad Mahrez
- Yasmine El Tohamy - (Photo by Victoria Haydn/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

UEFA B and El Gouna FC youth coach Omar Lasheen puts Riyad Mahrez under his tactical lens in his latest player analysis, with the Algerian superstar continuing to thrive for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Riyad Mahrez’s move to Manchester City has been a masterstroke by Pep Guardiola, signing the silky winger for an African transfer record, £60m. The 29-year-old has added goals and assists to the Etihad Stadium, bringing in different qualities to an already formidable front line.

The Algerian’s career has gone from strength to strength since helping Leicester City win the Premier League in 2016, winning another domestic title and an African Cup of Nations on the way. This player analysis will highlight Riyad Mahrez’s main qualities and look at areas where he can improve to maintain his status of becoming one of the most revered players in English football.

Player Profile – Riyad Mahrez

Riyad Mahrez
(Photo by Oli Scarff/Pool viaGetty Images)

Strength: Tactical Awareness

Manchester City tactically set up in a formation with a front 5, usually giving the wingers the responsibility to occupy the outside vertical lanes. Riyad Mahrez’s understanding of his role allows him to position himself in the suitable areas which maximize the team’s effectiveness in relation to their offensive organization.

As Manchester City have a league high 62.2% average possession this season, it is important for their front players to occupy the correct areas to shift around the opposition, who usually play in a low block to congest the spaces.

Riyad Mahrez’s occupation of space relies heavily on his first touch and his ability to receive the ball in tight areas to play quick combinations with his teammates in order to open up the opposition and create dangerous opportunities.

Mahrez positions himself in the outside right vertical lane in order to stretch the pitch horizontally, to create inside spaces for the attacking midfielders to operate in action areas closer to the opponent’s goal.

In the example below against Burnley, Riyad Mahrez receives the ball close to the touchline, pulling the opposition left full-back out of the team shape. Mahrez’s first touch allows him to receive the ball on his stronger inside foot, allowing him the chance to make his next action on his second touch.

His position has created space inside for advancing midfielder, Bernardo Silva, who is allowed to make the run in the inside right vertical lane, an area in which the opposition left full-back would have been occupying.

Mahrez’s decision-making combined with his appreciation of his teammates positioning allows him to alter his position to create different spaces depending on the offensive situation.

Riyad Mahrez occasionally moves inside to overload the central areas of the pitch and combine with midfielders. As he has occupied a narrower position, he ensures that one of his teammates can exploit the wide position he has vacated.

In a situation where he has moved inside to make more and quicker passes with the midfielders around him, he has seen his teammate, right full-back (out of picture) Kyle Walker in a high starting position.

Mahrez’s movement inside leaves space outside for a teammate

His appreciation of where the opposition defenders are has allowed him to realize that the opposition wing-back has followed him inside and vacated the wide area. As the ball is played into him, he flicks the ball with one touch onto Kyle Walker who has a big space to attack.

Strength: Dribbling

Riyad Mahrez’s prominent offensive quality is his dribbling. He is able to dribble in 1v1 situations to go past opponents to create space for himself and others around him. Pep Guardiola relies on Mahrez’s close control and instincts for shielding the ball to draw defenders towards him, which in turn forces them to vacate their positions in their team’s defensive structure.

This gives more freedom to his teammates to move into these spaces and into less congested areas to create more problems for the opposition.

Mahrez’s bravery in taking defenders on and forcing them to leave their positions is an approach that not only shows his willingness to help the team, but shows his positive approach to the game in terms of his creativity.

He has the second most attempted and completed dribbles at Manchester City this season; 83 and 49 respectively.

The speed at which Mahrez can change direction allows him to manipulate the ball easily past opponents using different parts of his foot depending on the assessment of the space around him as well as the positioning of his teammates.

His quality allows him to find the quickest and most direct route to goal, whether it is with a final pass to one of his teammates, or having the option to attack the space he has created for himself.

The example below illustrates his ability to go alone and create an opportunity for himself using his dribbling quality. As Mahrez receives the ball on the edge of the penalty box, he is faced with a situation where he has no teammates around.

Riyad Mahrez

Interpreting the options available to him, he decides to use the outside of his foot to feint coming inside and look for options in a more central area. This attracts a second defender to block his inside path.

Riyad Mahrez

Mahrez’s quick reaction allows him to change direction at speed and uses the inside of his foot to push the ball into the outside space, where he can have a more direct route to goal.

Riyad Mahrez

After attacking the space, he takes shot with his right foot, scoring a goal for Manchester City.

Riyad Mahrez’s interpretation of space as well as his tactical understanding of his teammates’ movements allows him to make a preconceived decision regarding his next action.

The automatisms coached and analysis done by Pep Guardiola prepares the players for different situations in the game which enhances the communication between players and makes their actions more predictable for one another.

This was apparent in the attack against Arsenal. With Riyad Mahrez receiving the ball in a wide area, he draws out left wing-back Kieran Tierney, which forces him to vacate the space alongside the left central defender. As Tierney is too tight to Mahrez, the Algerian’s quick dribbling action opens up the space around him and gives him two possibilities to progress the offensive situation.

Winger Raheem Sterling makes a run into the space, where Mahrez can make the pass through the passing line he has created for himself and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne holds his position and offers Mahrez an inside option.

Riyad Mahrez

Room For Improvement: Defensive Intensity

Defensively is where Riyad Mahrez needs to improve to make an even bigger contribution to Manchester City’s performances. As Manchester City play in the opponent’s half and control the game with the ball as mentioned before, they are put in a low number of defensive situations throughout each game.

However, in the moments they lose the ball, Riyad Mahrez has not consistently shown the willingness to defend for long periods, often losing concentration in counter-attack.

Manchester City’s defensive transitions is based on quick counter-pressing, where they have to press the ball and win it back as quickly as possible to prevent their opponents from exploiting any available spaces. This relies on players to react quickly after losing the ball, a quality that Mahrez lacks.

Riyad Mahrez
Slow reaction from Mahrez
Riyad Mahrez
Distance grows between Mahrez and direct opponent

This is exemplified in the images above, where Manchester City lose the ball near the halfway line with Mahrez in an advanced position. As soon as they lose the ball, the Sheffield United left wing-back is thinking about his next action and reacts quickly to attack the space for a counter-attack. On the other hand, Riyad Mahrez’s body position shows that he was on his heels and takes time to take off from his position to start tracking back his direct opponent.

Tactically, Manchester City have found it difficult to play against teams that play with wing-backs or full-backs play with high starting positions. This is mainly because Manchester City like to press the defensive line, and it is harder to do that when the opponent’s defence is spread out.

In response, Manchester City’s wingers close the passing line to the full-backs/wing-backs and force either an interception or a pass into central areas, where they have a numerical superiority.

If Manchester City’s opponents are able to find a way to make a pass towards the full-backs/wing-backs, then their wingers would have a bigger distance to track back towards their goal. This highlights Riyad Mahrez’s lack of intensity and determination to work his way back and recover the ball for his team.

This is shown below against Leicester, where a ball was played into their forward as he held up the ball for their left wing-back to run onto and attack the space. Ben Chilwell, the left wing-back does have a higher starting position, which already puts Riyad Mahrez at a disadvantage.

Riyad Mahrez

The ball is dealt with by Mahrez’s teammate, as he becomes the closest player to Chilwell. However, the distance between the Algerian and the Leicester City wing-back opens up as the ball progresses up the pitch, which could have created a dangerous situation for his team.

Riyad Mahrez

Conclusion – Riyad Mahrez

Riyad Mahrez
(Photo by Islam Safwat/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Following in the footsteps of Algerian legends Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi, Riyad Mahrez is surely in the process of immortality in the African game. 

With his breathtaking 1v1 ability to manipulate the ball through his dribbling technique and the continuation of improving his tactical understanding of the game, he will be forever seen as a true African icon in Europe.

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