There are few Leicester players who split fan opinion more right now than Riyad Mahrez. It’s been a turbulent season for last year’s PFA player of the year, his highs coming in the Foxes Champions League campaign. His league form has been less consistent though. He’s copped a lot of abuse lately, some fans having more than lost patience with him. But are we expecting too much every game?
Mahrez has perhaps been his own worst enemy. His form last season was off the charts and catapulted him into the limelight, attracting the attention of the world’s biggest and best. Much like Leicester City in general; it was likely his peak form and topped off by a high tally of seventeen goals and eleven assists. It’s no coincidence that in a season where his club struggled in the early part of the season, the Algerian also found it tough to replicate form. Across all competitions so far he’s notched nine goals and five assists. It’s not awful for a team whose goals are well spread, but expectations were so much more for him. Not least because we know he’s capable of it.
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While Craig Shakespeare has been able to get the Foxes back to their best, you could argue that Riyad Mahrez is still not quite there. Still, some of the criticism levelled at him though defies belief and it does feel as though he may have become the current scapegoat. Some have blamed it on a lack of effort from the winger, but I’m not convinced. This is a player who stood on the pitch at an FA Cup game, alone, analysing his performance and trying to work out ways to be better. He’s always been a player who thrives on confidence. Much of that would have been knocked or chipped away earlier in the season.
He’s never dealt particularly well in the midst of speculation, transfer windows and so on. There’s still glimpses of the unstoppable aspects of his game. He was unlucky not to find himself on the score sheet against Atletico last week. While many cited him as the most frustrating player after it, the statistics suggest something different and had his chances gone in, I wonder what the reaction would have been. His second half display was exactly what we love about him, only without a goal to show for them.
Something to bear in mind is a small change to Mahrez’s game this year. A frequent complaint was the lack of support he gave to Danny Simpson and the defence in previous campaigns. It’s something that over his three years with us, he’s taken huge steps to improve on. This season he’s been forced to do more defensive duties than is ideal. Firstly, it’s not his strength and secondly it takes him away from the attacks. If the ball breaks forward, he’s often having to sprint up-field. He’s been making more tackles and blocks this season, which while useful, will have an impact on how much he contributes going forward. Yet this was something we as fans complained about previously, but don’t praise him for addressing more now.
The frustrations aimed at him are understandable sometimes. We all know what he’s capable of so when he does take on several players and do really well only to sloppily lose it, it’s a head in hands moment. Unfortunately there are a few too many of them this season. Perhaps sometimes we forget he’s still maturing. While not a young player anymore, he’s certainly not got as many years behind him as some of our squad, so he’s still going to make the wrong decision from time to time. It’s also worth noting that after last year, clubs are more switched onto him, so it’s always two or three deep when marking him. He’s one of those players though, you want him on the pitch because of what he might do at any moment.
Had you asked Leicester fans to put money on the player they most expected to lose last summer, it would have been the Algerian. We know the club likely had bids for him. Though it seems he never asked for a transfer himself and ended months of speculation by signing a new deal. This was seen as a show of faith by the winger. Many understood that it likely meant he’d give us one more season and then we could expect to lose him. Back then, most wanted him to stay, you feel the tide has turned a little now, some actually hoping to sell him.
Mahrez can draw comparison with a winger he played alongside briefly at Leicester. Paul Gallagher tended to split opinion almost as much. The two players share some characteristics and it was ultimately Mahrez’s form that helped lead to Gallagher’s exit from the club. The Algerian is a more finessed version you could argue, but both enjoy set pieces, turning players and well crafted goals.
The biggest criticism of Gallagher often came back to his strength, the way he lost the ball. He also had a tendency to look like a luxury player in the more gritty, long ball games. All of these things have also been levelled at Mahrez this season, and previously. Often fairly too, in a game where the ball is not on the floor often, the Algerian will rarely prevail. When he’s on a good day though, he’s utterly devastating.
There were many incredible moments last season as a Leicester fan, many of which were provided by the Algerian. His one turn that humiliated three Aston Villa players in our 3-2 comeback will likely make highlight videos for years to come. Few will ever forgot him single-handedly charging down Manchester City to score in front of our travelling fans. While we certainly weren’t a one or two man team last season, he contributed some vital goals, scoring in several 1-0 wins away from home too.
The best of Riyad Mahrez this season has easily been in the Champions League, particularly in the group stages. He looked comfortable and excited to be taking on players again and caused all manner of problems. He notched four goals across our nine games. It’s not been at the level so many expected though, meaning it’ll be interesting to see if that has put off the bigger clubs from pursuing him.
Players like Mahrez don’t come along every day though, which makes me wonder why so many have written him off. Personally, I still believe in him and we’ve been lucky to have held onto him through to this point. Even when he was first settling into life in English football, there were glimpses of his greatness.
Yes, this season has been disappointing by his standards, but he’s still produced some brilliant moments. We’ve also been unfortunate not to see the potential of his relationship with Islam Slimani more due to the latter’s injury issues. Could we hang onto him during the summer, we’ll hope to get him truly back at his best. If we can, it’ll certainly help our hopes of a big season next year.