CHICAGO — With so many of Manchester City’s first-team players still to return to preseason following the World Cup, Riyad Mahrez made his first start for the club in a 1-0 defeat Saturday to Borussia Dortmund in the International Champions Cup among an eclectic lineup of youngsters and ex-loanees with uncertain futures.
But in a disjointed game that was more about dusting off the cobwebs of the summer break, the £60 million club-record signing offered a glimpse of why Pep Guardiola decided to renew, and win, his pursuit of the Algerian winger.
Mahrez played 72 minutes despite a game riddled with frequent changes, and he was closest to making a breakthrough for City with a 20-yard free kick that was brilliantly tipped over the bar by Dortmund goalkeeper Marwin Hitz. But, more important, he hinted that he has the flexibility and intelligence needed to fit into Guardiola’s fluent tactical systems, which last season led to City’s record-breaking Premier League triumph.
Despite scoring a record 100 points in the domestic campaign, City’s squad fell short in the Champions League, which is why they have added yet more attacking threat to a side that scored 143 goals in all competitions last season.
Mahrez’s unique ability, which was possibly lacking from Guardiola’s title winners, is his capacity to regularly beat a player in one-on-one situations. The 27-year-old was a constant threat when isolated against defenders during Leicester City’s unforgettable 2015-16 title season when he won the PFA Player of the Season. In a Guardiola team, when defences are often constantly stretched, that adds another dimension and explains why the Catalan returned for his player after missing out in the January transfer window when the Foxes were quoting a £95 million price tag.
City have secured him for two thirds of that fee, and it could turn out to be a bargain if he is able to have the same impact as he did in Leicester’s miracle season.
Mahrez started his first game in an orthodox wide position but struggled to make much of an impact in 20 minutes surrounded by unfamiliar players, many in unfamiliar positions. Luke Bolton, a young winger, made his first start as a makeshift right-back and battled hard while inside him, Brazilian Douglas Luiz was in the holding midfield role he failed to nail down during a season-long loan at Spanish side Girona. In City’s Premier League opener against Arsenal on Aug. 12, those positions will be taken by Kyle Walker and Fernandinho. City passed the ball around confidently but never threatened the Dortmund goal from open play.
Mahrez showed good touches and quick feet to occasionally glide past Marcel Schmelzer, but playing tight to the wing, he wasn’t able to influence the game. His switch inside midway through the first half to a more attacking midfield role led to City’s most potent moment of the game.
He linked up neatly with Phil Foden, and City became more of a threat through the centre of the pitch. It led to their best opportunity of the match when Lukas Nmecha was brought down close to the edge of the box. Mahrez’s whipped free kick clipped the wall and would have brought his first goal but for a fabulous save. He went close again shortly after the break with another free kick that drifted just past Hitz’s post.
But as is typical in preseason games, the substitutions mounted up in the second half, and the game became even more fractured as Mahrez moved back out to the wing and then was taken off himself in the 72nd minute.
However, his brief cameo in the midfield attacking roles showed that he is far from a one-trick player. City moved the ball around quickly for the first time in the sort of style that Guardiola will demand from both him and Foden when the season kicks off.
Leroy Sane, a week behind in his preseason training, came on for the final 18 minutes and gave an exciting cameo of speed and skill that showed why he was last season’s Young Player of the Season. It was only frustrating that the two wingers weren’t not on the pitch at the same time. Not to mention when he links up with Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva when the first team all meet up in Manchester.
It’s only 72 minutes into Mahrez’s City career, but the Premier League’s best attack appears to have got even better.