After consistent transfer windows of relentless speculation, after disagreements with Leicester City chiefs, and after a series of—reported—near misses, Riyad Mahrez finally got his big-money move away from the King Power Stadium this window.
Having been linked with Arsenal, Real Madrid, and Paris Saint-Germain among others since his 2016 title-winning heroics with the Foxes, it was ultimately Manchester City who secured the North African’s signature.
Pep Guardiola parted with £60 million to bring the North African to the Etihad Stadium—another layer of gold on the champions’ magnificent unit—and early signs during preseason have been encouraging.
Ahead of City’s Community Shield season curtain-raiser against Chelsea this weekend—perhaps Mahrez’s first real test—there’s certainly reason for encouragement.
Unlike various new big-money signings who make their move to the top flight, Mahrez is already a proven commodity in English football.
During his four seasons with Leicester—in which he experienced the ultimate highs and (almost) ultimate lows of the Prem—he scored 48 goals, of which 39 came in the top flight.
He’s proved himself both as a finisher and as a creator, contributing 27 assists for the Foxes during this time.
Such is his output, that only eight other players in the top flight have been involved in more goals over the last four years, and with the exception of Jamie Vardy, they all featured for the division’s traditional heavyweights.
Last season, he was again one of the division’s most exciting players, with only Christian Eriksen and Wilfried Zaha completing more dribbles than the Algeria international.
However, there are of course no guarantees that Mahrez will be a hit with the champions.
Despite proving themselves in the Premier League, the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Darren Bent or Scott Parker arguably struggled after swapping one of the division’s would-be lesser lights for one of the domestic giants.
There are various complications that come with moving from being a big fish in a smaller pond to a small fish in a bigger pond, and players have to learn to adapt to greater expectations, higher demands, significant pressure, and a change in rhythm and routine.
Mahrez will no longer be a guaranteed starter and the first name on the teamsheet, and considering City’s wealth of options, may have to focus on making the most of the slightly fewer options that come his way.
Similarly, Guardiola’s infamously idiosyncratic style has claimed victims in the past, as fine players have struggled to adapt themselves to the former Barcelona’s boss’s methods and standards, and Mahrez must prove that he will not fall into this trap.
Each of these factors and unanswered questions represent a potential hurdle—a potential banana skin—for Mahrez as he looks to establish himself at Eastlands and repay the hefty fee City paid out.
Then there’s the competition for places which, at City, is perhaps as intense as at any other club in the world.
If Mahrez is to feature in wide areas—where he typically wreaked such havoc at Leicester—then he’ll need to unseat either Leroy Sane or Raheem Sterling.
Both may have endured disappointing summers—missing the World Cup and underperforming in Russia respectively—but they were key protagonists last term as City ran rampant.
The former, at 22, is still a terrifying prospect, and after being involved in 25 league goals last term (10 goals and 15 assists) he should just go from strength to strength this term.
Sterling has always represented something of a pet project for Guardiola, and it would be a shock if the Spaniard relegated the 23-year-old to the bench in order to accommodate Mahrez.
Sterling’s 29 decisive contributions last term surely make him one of the first names on the teamsheet, while Bernardo Silva—encouraging in spells last term—is another option on the right flank.
Intriguingly, on his City debut against Liverpool in the International Champions Cup, Mahrez took Sterling’s role on the right side of a front three, but opted to interpret it slightly differently.
The former Le Havre man operated as a tucked-in wideman, getting more involved in the build up, evading the press with his movement and fleet-footedness, and looking to support frontman Lukas Nmecha with through-balls or right-footed crosses.
Mahrez’s technique, creativity and trickery in a central role could prove influential for City this term, particularly as teams look to close down the Citizens, drop deeper and reduce the space in order to hang in the game for as long as possible.
Perhaps it’s David Silva, 33 later this season, whose place in the side is most in threat by Mahrez, provided the Algerian can adapt to a more central brief and prove that he can unlock defences that will be much more stifling against City than they ever were against Leicester.
With Ilkay Gundogan still battling fitness problems from time to time, and with Sterling and Sane seemingly locking down the wide areas, don’t be surprised to see Mahrez remodelled and remoulded in order to add an extra dimension to the champions.
Any kind of reconfiguration of his role will place another potential obstacle in his path to being a success at City.
Not only will Mahrez have to battle the aforementioned perils of moving to a major club—and the competition that is present at City—but he may also have to prove that he has the quality to adapt to a new approach and on-field brief.
"I'm confident I can help the team to win games and trophies,” Mahrez told reporters, as per BBC Sport.
“I showed in the last three years in the Premier League that I deserve to play at the highest level.”
He certainly has the confidence to make his mark at City, but Mahrez must still prove that he has the talent and the adaptability to thrive amidst the champions’ galaxy of stars.