'I have balls everywhere in my house.'

The original version of this article first appeared on fourfourtwo.com.

Man City signing Riyad Mahrez felt like “one of those” transfers. Like Fabian Delph before it, or when Pep Guardiola brought Mario Gotze to Bayern—a big club pulling the rug from a smaller one to pad their squad. Because they can. Not because they need to.

Sometimes though, good moves only become apparent in the long-run. Mahrez has blistered the soles of left-backs this season, becoming more than just a featured artist on a best-selling concert tour. This is the Riyad Mahrez we all knew and loved from Leicester—from the Arjen Robben–like runs to the angle-defying finishes, perhaps best summed up with his virtuoso solo goal against Aston Villa.

The winger is now integral to Man City, because he provides chaos. And at times over the last couple of years, this Man City side has lacked chaos—not the bad kind—but the game-changing genius of someone to conjure the unthinkable. Like Lionel Messi did for Pep at Barcelona. Like Robben, himself, in Bavaria. Like Kevin De Bruyne can do, should he be used out wide.

"

I play football like I'm playing on the street.

Football is a game. Obviously when you're playing for a club or your country, you have to be more serious and think for the team. But the first thing is always to have fun."

—The streets will never forget Riyad Mahrez and the feeling is mutual

Since arriving in Manchester in 2016, Guardiola’s taught the Premier League a lot—from ball-playing goalkeepers to the art of pressing—but he’s learned a lot of lessons. The tiki-taka evangelist of Barcelona receded in Munich when confronted with new egos and cultures. He evolved as a coach. He’s evolved further at Man City.

It seems churlish to even suggest it, but in many ways, Man City are Pep Guardiola’s most pragmatic team. The liquid gold of some of City’s play is breathtaking—literally, among the very pinnacle that our country has ever witnessed—so to label them with words you’d associate with Diego Simeone and Sam Allardyce seems daft. And yet, there’s a mechanical consistency at the Etihad that was never really present in Camp Nou.

"

Riyad Mahrez played well in the games he’s called upon last season, but he's now contributing to both our attack and defence and is starting more regularly as such.

His improved workrate on top of his quality—it's overwhelming and a pleasure to watch."

—Mahrez might not be a typical Pep Guardiola player but is playing his way into Man City's first eleven

Guardiola’s ideas of inverting wing-backs and converting wide-men into midfielders in the English game have been triumphant. But the same could be said of the consistency with which City have utilised cut-backs and crossing. De Bruyne spams the ball dozens of times a match into the box, like an stubborn marketing manager looking for any kind of engagement. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling were instructed to remain wide and balanced, vultures on opposite branches, ready to swoop in and pray on the other’s cross. 

The relentless pendulum swing of City’s crossing has swept all before it domestically for two years. But even the best need other outlets. 

"

For sure my workrate has levelled up since joining Man City. So has my understanding of the game: where to find space, when to dribble and to not, this type of thing.

It took a while, but the style we play evolves the players. It's what playing for Pep Guardiola is about."

—Mahrez surpassed his best ever assist tally this season and is a goal short from matching his second-best goal output

Guardiola was rendered mortal in the infamous Champions League encounter at Anfield in 2018. Against a Liverpool side that isolated Fernandinho and took a 3–0 lead in the tie, City reverted to the same crossing the ball aimlessly into the box for 45 minutes. The robotic, revert-to-system tactic was suddenly exposed; Jurgen Klopp, in that moment, became a grinning game-show host, unveiling the correct answer that the audience had pondered for months.

That’s why the ascension of Riyad Mahrez, from bit-part big buy to something close to his talismanic heroism in Midlands, is so exciting. This is a dimension that Sergio Aguero can’t muster all by himself. That De Bruyne sorely lacks so deep in midfield.

"

I have balls everywhere in my house. I always want to play.

All that's happened in the past few months, it makes you realise what a wonderful job you have as a footballer. I love what I'm doing and this life I have."

—Love makes the world go round and for Mahrez football is that love

Sane’s conflicts with his manager are well-known—perhaps thanks to the German’s tendency not to follow on-field instruction—but Mahrez at his peak could be even better. The league is all but dusted and Pep already has a hand on one of the League Cup’s three handles. The defence of the FA Cup can be played at walking pace until the quarters, surely, but in Europe—where Man City have looked vulnerable in recent times—the need for a new edge is vital.

Riyad Mahrez is up to speed with City now. In the fire of big-game cauldrons, Man City have often found themselves lacking unpredictability. Perhaps they’ve found it, in a signing that seemed at the time like a £60m bid just to feather their own nest.

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