Riyad Mahrez’s love of the ball is starting to pay dividends, says Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
City signed Algeria winger Mahrez from Leicester City for what was then a club-record fee of £60million in July last year.
Although the 28-year-old netted the pivotal third goal in City’s 4-1 final-day win at Brighton and Hove Albion to seal the Premier League title, he spent much of his debut campaign on the periphery of Guardiola’s first XI.
But Leroy Sane’s knee injury and a comparatively slow start this time around from City’s player of the year for 2018-19, Bernardo Silva, has handed Mahrez a more prominent role.
He opened the scoring in Wednesday’s 3-0 Champions League win at Shakhtar Donetsk – an authoritative response following last weekend’s shock 3-2 loss at Norwich City – and Guardiola finds something of a kindred spirit in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations winner.
“When he played last season he played good, except maybe the first few games, but it’s normal,” he said ahead of Saturday’s home game against Watford.
“We knew the quality and especially the mentality. How competitive he is, it surprised me a lot.
“There is one detail – he loves to play football, he loves the training sessions, he loves to be in contact with the ball.
“I like this type of player. He goes to the training session on the pitch and immediately takes the ball to have fun with the ball. That maybe is a stupid detail but I like it.”
Despite failing to win too many plaudits last season, Guardiola insists Mahrez has never lacked for self-belief – to the extent he is not always the most receptive member of the City squad when it comes to regular rotation.
“He is a guy who I think doesn’t feel too much pressure. It doesn’t matter where he plays, he has a lot of confidence in himself.
“If he makes two bad actions, he goes ‘give me the ball, give me the ball – I am going to try again’. That is the best detail for the players on the big, big stages. It is the most difficult to find.
“The only thing he has to improve is to be a bit more relaxed when he doesn’t play. The rest is top.”
In that regard, Guardiola suggested Mahrez should follow the example of Gabriel Jesus.
The Brazil striker grasped his opportunity to start versus Shakhtar by completing the scoring, although the presence of club great Sergio Aguero means the bench if never too far away.
“It’s difficult to find in Europe, in the world, a striker like Gabriel,” Guardiola said. “How important he is, a number nine for Brazil.
“He’s an incredibly top player, a young player. His behaviour in the training sessions is outstanding.
“He has to handle fighting in his position against a legend – one of the best strikers I have ever seen in my life, Aguero.
“It is not easy to accept this role and he accepts it. That’s why I am over the moon with him.
“In the last two years Sergio has been incredible how he fights for the team, but I know when [Jesus] plays he does absolutely everything.
He is a young, young striker. The future for this club is incredible.”