How Sterling and Mahrez can turn the Premier League inside out

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Sterling has signed a fresh contract and Mahrez has begun to play a starring role in an updated City team which features a new, deadly way to attack

Manchester City have evolved. And – with the news that Raheem Sterling has signed a new contract tying him to the club until 2023 – things bode well for the future.

Sterling is the Premier League’s most improved player in the two-and-a-bit years since Pep Guardiola was installed as City manager. His 18 league goals were key to City’s domestic dominance last season and his form so far this campaign rivals any forward in world football.

Last season City had a defined style of attacking play. Sterling would play from the right with Leroy Sane generally occupying the left flank. In between them would play Sergio Aguero while Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva would be close by in the attacking midfield positions.

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When City got wide there was space for full-back Kyle Walker on the overlap or else Sterling just inside in the area known as the half space. City got a player to the byline, put the ball into the centre of the box and usually found a finish.

“With Leroy he’s a guy who makes movements, runs in behind and goes more to the byline than Raz [Sterling],” says Guardiola.

But this season things have changed. Not always and not dramatically but there is an added threat to the City attack.

The signing of Riyad Mahrez took many by surprise because City already had an abundance of left-footed attackers such as Sane, David Silva and Bernardo Silva. None of those however possess the same kind of offensive profile as the Algerian.

He has not come to City to compete with the Silvas for a berth in attacking midfield nor will he replace Sane on the left side of attack. Instead he has come to fill the right side of Guardiola’s offensive shape.

Mahrez Sterling Manchester City

And when Mahrez goes right, Sterling goes left. For a long time this City team attacked with a left-footed attacker on the left and a right-footed attacker on the right. But this new system sees Guardiola return to the kind of attacking pattern that brought Guardiola so much success at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

It has become a feature of City’s play to see Aymeric Laporte deliver quick long-range passes from the left side of the defence to Mahrez in attack. That ball featured heavily under Guardiola at Bayern when it was Dante or Jerome Boateng seeking out Arjen Robben.

Whenever a good opportunity exists to get the wide attacker one-on-one, it is taken. It means Mahrez has the option of going down the line and crossing low with his right foot – as he did for David Silva’s opener against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday night in the Champions League – or else he can opt to turn inside and deliver a shot or an in-swinging pass towards the back post.

“Riyad, normally, he can play on the right and he’s a guy who has a sense of goal,” says Guardiola.

Sterling too has the option of cutting in from the left and finding the target. He did so to great effect in the 6-0 demolition of the Ukrainian champions with a goal just after half time.

The reasons for the change are clear. When City are faced with a deep-lying defence numbering five or more, they will play their right footer on the right and their left footer on the left. It means that they can slot passes for the full-backs – Walker or Benjamin Mendy – on the overlap or else take the opportunity to drive for the line themselves.

“I’m a fortunate guy,” says Guardiola. “Because I have two options. For example, when we play against five in the back to play left on the left and right on the right it’s easier. It depends on the opponent.”

When the backline numbers four, you’ll see City utilising the cut-inside method as they have done to great effect so far this season.

Guardiola does not rest on his laurels. It would have been easy for him to look at the supremacy of his side as evidenced by the season just passed and decided more of the same was the best way forward this time around.

But he’s demanded an evolution; just when teams thought they might be safe ducking for cover and blocking the gaps, Pep has added a new threat.

“The idea to play is quite similar,” says Guardiola. “The specific qualities of every player makes the difference.”

Mahrez is far from a luxury substitute and Sterling is in the form of his life and buoyed by a new contract. That’s not to say Sane is a substitute all of a sudden. There is no simple answer to the question of what is City’s best XI. That will be decided on a game-by-game basis depending on what the opposition set up.

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