How Benjamin Mendy and Riyad Mahrez make Manchester City better

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12: Benjamin Mendy of Manchester City looks on following the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on August 12, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Tom Flathers/Man City via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12: Benjamin Mendy of Manchester City looks on following the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on August 12, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Tom Flathers/Man City via Getty Images) /

Benjamin Mendy and Riyad Mahrez have added a new dimension to Manchester City. Find out how they make the Premier League champions even better.

Manchester City shouldn’t have much room for improvement after amassing 100 points to win last season’s Premier League title. Yet if the first game of the Citizens’ title defense is anything to go by, they’re even better in 2018-19, thanks to Benjamin Mendy and Riyad Mahrez.

Both players added a new dimension to City’s devastating attacking play during Sunday’s 2-0 win over Arsenal. Specifically, the pair redefined how the Citizens created and used width at the Emirates Stadium.

Mahrez is a new signing, arriving for £60 million from Leicester this summer. Mendy might as well be a new signing after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury.

City paid £52 million to bring Mendy from Monaco last summer, at the time making him the world’s most expensive defender. The lavish fee looked like money well spent judging by the way Mendy carried the fight to Arsenal.

His buccaneering runs rendered the Gunners’ potentially potent right flank impotent, with Mesut Ozil and Hector Bellerin focused more on defending than attacking.

Mendy’s energy and industry yielded the assists for both of City’s goals. They also helped alter the shape of manager Pep Guardiola’s team in forward positions.

Goal’s Sam Lee described the altered dynamic:

Mendy is not what Guardiola has historically expected in a full-back. The Spaniard usually wants his full-backs to be accomplished enough on the ball to act as auxiliary playmakers in central areas.

It lets City win the numbers battle in midfield, allowing for quick retentions of possession, as well as creating more combinations to exchange passes. These demands are why converted midfielders often make the switch to full-back on Guardiola’s watch.

Dani Alves and Jordi Alba did it at Barcelona, while Joshua Kimmich did the same with Bayern Munich. When Mendy went down last season, Guardiola turned to one-time central midfielder Fabian Delph to replace him.

While Delph fit the mold for Guardiola’s traditional approach, Mendy has offered something different. Namely, he’s provided natural width and a threat significant enough to drag a player out of central areas to help corral him.

Ozil was usually tasked with doubling up on the flank on Sunday. Mendy consistently dragging him out of position allowed left winger Raheem Sterling to dart into pockets of space in the middle more often.

Sterling made the most of the room to act as City’s chief attacking menace during the first half. He eventually opened the scoring with a rasping drive on 14 minutes.

Mendy teed up the goal, giving Sterling space by taking a potential marker out of position:

Whenever he got forward, Mendy demanded extra attention, creating more room for City’s fluid front three. Sterling is always more dangerous whenever he bursts through the middle, and thanks to Mendy, he had less responsibility out wide.

City’s second goal also owed everything to Mendy’s movement, as he picked out Bernardo Silva after another impressive stride forward.

Yet it wasn’t all about Mendy in wide areas. Right-back Kyle Walker tormented converted midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the other side.

Maitland-Niles gave way to injury after being stretched to breaking point by Walker’s pace and raids forward. Former Juventus veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner hardly fared any better.

In fairness to Lichtsteiner, he also had his hands full trying to subdue Mahrez. Anyone wondering why City paid so much for the Foxes’ attacking talisman got an answer from the way Mahrez created the room for Walker to exploit.

As a left-footer at his best cutting in from the right, Mahrez left ample space on the overlap for Walker. His mazy moves infield also occupied deep-lying midfielders Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi and left Lichtsteiner to deal with Walker by himself.

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Things haven’t quite clicked into gear for Mahrez just yet, but he’s inching toward the magic he used to produce so often for Leicester.

Straighter, wider forays forward from Mendy and Walker allowed Sterling and Mahrez to cut inside at will. The relationship was symbiotic, as the wingers’ penchant for inside runs cleared the decks on the flanks for full-backs to exploit.

It was a far cry from the way City funneled everything centrally last season.

The significance of City’s more direct full-backs and inverted wingers can’t be underestimated. Based on the way the Citizens overloaded central areas and subjected teams to death by 1,000 passes routinely when they won the title, challengers are sure to clog the middle this time around.

It’s why Guadiola needed different threats like relentless Mendy and central-leaning Mahrez. They helped City comfortably see off Arsenal in head coach Unai Emery’s first league game in place of Arsene Wenger, despite not starting chief maestros in the middle, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva.

City winning a tough away game with room to spare, without key stars from last season’s record-setting group, is an ominous sign for the rest of the league.