Riyad Mahrez buy embodies Pep Guardiola’s pursuit of perfection
To understand how driven Pep Guardiola is to ensure Manchester City retain the title while transforming them into true Champions League contenders look no further than his acquisition of Riyad Mahrez. Last season Guardiola cast a spell over City and the Premier League. City’s sublime, hypnotic style swept them to the title by a record 19 points and left domestic rivals in catchup mode.
Yet Guardiola was not satisfied. The arch-perfectionist understood the need to improve from a position of domestic strength, while City’s Champions League quarter-final humbling by Liverpool also troubled him. He wanted to add a new dimension against home rivals who have worked City out – Liverpool’s frenetic press showed the way – and those on the continent against whom more artistry might be required.
Step forward Mahrez for a club record £60m (rising to £75m) as the footballer Guardiola believes is the answer to both these ambitions. A further sign of his ruthless quest for improvement is that the player whose position is most threatened by Mahrez’s arrival is Raheem Sterling, who despite being transformed into a 23-goal forward vital to the championship triumph is yet to fully convince the manager.
Guardiola’s mission for 2018-19 is clear: make City the third side to win consecutive Premier League titles and claim a first Champions League for the club. As City’s upcoming Amazon documentary indicates, Guardiola is at once a near-genius coach and tough taskmaster. The trailer begins with a dressing-room message to his players – “I’m going to defend you to the last day of our lives at the press conference but in here I’m going to tell you the truth” – which might be marked down as regulation manager-speak if it had not occurred during a campaign that saw his team take the league title with a record 100 points, wins (32) and goals (106).
Guardiola’s pursuit of excellence is illustrated by a counterintuitive view of Sergio Agüero, too. As with Sterling he remains underwhelmed by the striker despite him scoring 30 goals last year. Guardiola continues to believe Gabriel Jesus is the better option and, but for the serious knee injury that ruled the Brazilian out for two months at the start of the year, Agüero would have struggled to be top scorer again. Jesus has scored 24 in 38 starts for City, a fine ratio considering his injury disruptions: he also suffered a broken metatarsal in the spring of 2017.
If Guardiola has strengthened in attack with Mahrez, Liverpool showed where City can be troubled: at the back. Jürgen Klopp’s men defeated them home and away in a resounding 5-1 aggregate win in the Champions League quarter-finals. They also handed City a 4-3 defeat in January’s league meeting at Anfield.
Klopp’s strategy involved a swarming press and lightning attack via a frontline of Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino – a strategy that other rivals will have noted.
A second way to go at Guardiola’s rearguard is aerially, where Nicolás Otamendi, in particular, remains suspect. An illustration came when City beat Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford last December. Marcus Rashford’s 45thminute goal came due to a misjudged Otamendi jump that allowed the ball to reach the striker. Otamendi, though, is a footballer whose vulnerability in defence but ability to create embodies the Guardiola who once famously stated: “I am not a coach for tackles.”
In that Manchester derby the Argentinian had the character to respond by scoring a 54th-minute winner. Otamendi’s 3,074 total passes in the league was bettered only by Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka – his ability to build from the back is vital to the Guardiola blueprint.
Any question marks over the rearguard, though, can be countered by Guardiola effectively having a new member in Benjamin Mendy. The Frenchman suffered a serious knee injury five matches in last year, returning to
make three substitute appearances at the season’s close.
Until going down against Crystal Palace in September Mendy’s ability to attack along his left flank and deliver consistently menacing crosses opened up a new front for City. Their subsequent success without Mendy is evidence of Guardiola’s supreme coaching ability and opponents will wonder how dangerous City will be with him in the lineup.
In Guardiola’s XI to start the season, then, the defence should have the assured Ederson in goal, with Kyle Walker, Otamendi, Vincent Kompany, and Mendy ahead of him. John Stones will be included when the manager utilises his three centre-backs system.
If Otamendi and the injury-prone Kompany are weak links, rivals may hope for further vulnerability in the failed chase for a holding midfielder to compete with Fernandinho. Guardiola is a big fan of the Brazilian but he is now 33. The inability to sign first Fred (who instead joined Manchester United) and then Jorginho (now at Chelsea) means Guardiola ended the window a key target short.
İlkay Gündoğan, though, is a footballer in Fernandinho’s class, an able deputy who should see game time in a more advanced position too when David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are rested. De Bruyne is a shoo-in as a starter, the fulcrum of the side. Guardiola would also love to select Silva for every match but has admitted the Spaniard will be deployed more sparingly given that he turns 33 in January.
In attack Bernardo Silva and Sterling jostle with Leroy Sané and Mahrez for a wide berth, while Jesus is favourite to be No 9 ahead of Agüero once they are fully match-fit following post-World Cup breaks. This all points to Guardiola’s strongest side being: Ederson; Walker, Otamendi, Kompany, Mendy; Fernandinho; Mahrez, De Bruyne, Silva, Sané; Jesus.
Walker, Kompany, De Bruyne and Mendy were involved in the final weekend of Russia 2018 so may be a little behind in preparation. Yet City’s squad is the best in terms of experience, quality and depth. And they are led by the finest coach.
For those aiming to dislodge City a further glimmer of hope beyond the shaky rearguard might be found in the reason why Fred and Jorginho plus Alexis Sánchez eluded Guardiola. The Chilean also eschewed City (for United) in January due to the club refusing to budge from their valuation of a player and salary. The club’s stance is that the attraction of playing under Guardiola should make up for any financial shortfall.
This is either admirable or naive. Should the Premier League defence or Champions League challenge disappoint, the Catalan – and fans – may wonder if the principle is worth it. As the world’s wealthiest club a view will form that City’s riches are there precisely for the onfield investment that can push the team over the line to glory.
Despite this, though, as the fresh campaign starts City seem perfectly placed to join United and Chelsea as teams who have retained the Premier League and to be real challengers to become the sixth English club to be crowned European champions.
If Guardiola has strengthened in attack with Mahrez, Liverpool showed where City can be troubled: at the back
Riyad Mahrez is greeted by Pep Guardiola on his first day of training at Manchester City’s Football Academy. Photograph: Victoria Haydn/Man City via Getty Images