Riyad Mahrez buy em­bod­ies Pep Guardi­ola’s pur­suit of per­fec­tion

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Jamie Jack­son

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

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