Guardiola must buy into Mahrez stock for Champions League tilt
As the weeks have flown by in the Premier League, the certitude that Manchester City will not be making it three title wins on the bounce grows and grows.
The crushing inevitability of Liverpool's wins, when viewed through the prism of performances that aren't even that great week on week, means any lingering hope has now assumed a forlorn quality.
Not since his first season in England has Pep Guardiola failed to win the Premier League and, harsh as it may seem, there is an air of failure – but only in the sense of underachievement – hanging about the place at the Etihad.
The one avenue where relief remains possible is in the Champions League, a competition Guardiola has not conquered since 2011; it is also the one that, at this time, Manchester City need to win. It really is the only way to remedy a season of atrophy.
As such, it makes sense for City to begin to turn their attentions in that direction. It might offend the fiercely competitive nature of their manager, especially while the league remains a mathematical possibility. However, even a purist like him must embrace the prudence of pragmatism, even if that means losing the battle in order to win the war.
While there has frequently been disappointment in Europe for the Citizens, their quality, as well as the transcendence of their football, has never been in doubt. What has come into question is their ability to course-correct in the face of set-backs, to have something for when the plan doesn't seem to be working.
Considering that, it is certainly fortuitous, and also more than a little bit apt, that City's stand-out player so far in the Champions League this term has been Riyad Mahrez.
No player has made more assists in the competition (four) than the Algeria international, who has carried on the momentum of victory at the Africa Cup of Nations, and is quietly asserting his importance to the City cause.
It was not always like this, of course. It was his star turn at the end of last season, when he scored and assisted to dispatch Brighton on the final day, that seemed to signpost his transition from an expensive spare wheel to a true cog.
Since then, he has begun to earn more and more trust from Guardiola, especially on midweek nights. Sure, the group was ultimately not the toughest possible City could have faced, but as the wild variance that has come to characterize the knockout stage Champions League in recent times comes into play, the value of a player in Mahrez's mould will become apparent.
The very anarchic nature of his play that means he has not been involved quite as often as he would like is arguably the club's biggest weapon in ties when their structured positional play begins to crack under pressure, and fissures appear in a system that had seemed watertight.
It is in situations like these that Guardiola must acknowledge his eternal quest for control is self-defeating, and that he must lean into Mahrez's ability to break free and play extempore, as it were.
Players in this mould are, in a way, the key difference between Liverpool and City: whereas the Reds have been able to leverage the strengths of their individuals even when the collective is not in perfect harmony, the Citizens seem to want (or need) to be in tune every single time in order to win.
That is why Jurgen Klopp's side are streets ahead in the league, and look to be favourites once again in Europe—they have mastered both approaches.
It will be interesting to see if Pep is humble and flexible enough to go against his own nature and fully incorporate Mahrez. Not so much build around him (that would be a bridge too far), but let him be the whirling dervish of menace he can be when let off the leash.
Certainly, it is the sort of responsibility with which the 28-year-old thrives, and the sort he would have been afforded had he gotten the chance to move to Arsenal back in 2016.
Waiting two years to make the next step in his career was frustrating enough, but since joining City it is difficult to imagine Mahrez has been satisfied with being a part of the furniture at a very successful club, rather than the centre-piece he would have been with the Gunners.
It's an interesting little subplot as City go to the Emirates on Sunday; it is a game the incumbent Premier League champions should win, but then again, that could have been said for all of the games in which they have dropped points this term.
Against a side he almost joined, starting Mahrez would give him a point to prove, and would stave off the miniscule possibility of an upset. Even more crucially, it would signify a willingness on Guardiola's part to finally buy into the Algerian's stock ahead of a second half of the season that grows in importance by the matchday.