Riyad Mahrez has not always seemed like a natural fit at Manchester City.
In 2021, though, the Algeria winger is finally starting to add consistency to his undoubted quality, with his performances playing a key role in City's charge to a third title four years.
Pep Guardiola currently has a fully-fit squad overflowing with attacking talent to pick from, and yet Mahrez has suddenly made himself undroppable with his recent displays.
City’s 5-2 victory over Southampton on Wednesday moved them 14 points clear at the top of the Premier League, and it was Mahrez that did the most to ensure there was no hangover from Sunday's shock Manchester derby defeat.
After a strong first-half showing, the Saints were threatening to turn City's blip into a full-blown crisis, only for Mahrez to make three significant interventions either side of half-time to ensure that normal service was resumed.
With the score poised shortly before the break at 1-1 after James Ward-Prowse's penalty cancelled out Kevin De Bruyne's opener, Mahrez pounced on Che Adams’ loose pass, cut inside onto his left foot and curled a delightful shot from the edge of the box past Alex McCarthy.
Five minutes later in first-half stoppage-time, he exchanged passes with De Bruyne, weaved through the Southampton defence and fired in a low shot that rebounded off the foot of the post for Ilkay Gundogan to finish into an open net.
The game was then essentially over 10 minutes after the break when Mahrez curled another left foot effort beyond McCarthy after beating a number of visiting defenders.
It was his seventh goal contribution in six games - four goals and three assists - and ensured City collected the three points to put their title challenge back on track.
Perhaps more significantly, it was the first time in his City career that he has started six Premier League matches in succession.
His recent contributions meant he was taken off with half an hour remaining to protect him for Saturday’s trip to Fulham as well as the Champions League and FA Cup games that follow.
While there has never been any concerns over Mahrez's talent at the Etihad Stadium, there have been some questions over how fits into the City system.
During his PFA Player of the Year campaign in 2015-16, when he did more than anyone to contribute to Leicester City's shock title triumph, he was an instinctive player, who dazzled with his individual skill.
Playing in Guardiola’s tactical system, Mahrez has sometimes looked inhibited, restricted by only playing as a right winger, and has often found himself as the odd man out in attack.
But in the recently-deployed striker-less system, with attacking midfielders buzzing across the forward line, Mahrez has had the space and opportunity to become more aggressive and showcase his match-winning ability.
He stepped up again when City needed him here, and as Guardiola continues to rotate some of his star men, right now he cannot do without Mahrez's magnificence.
By Jonathan Smith
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