Leicester City: Premier League Champions is a sentence I never thought I’d write in my lifetime after years of mediocrity (and worse, Carl Cort and Gabor Bori spring to mind). Unquestionably, Riyad Mahrez was a massive factor in the Foxes’ amazing triumph. 17 goals, 11 assists and without a doubt worthy of his PFA Player of the Season award, he was an instrumental part of the team and more specifically, the 3 standout players of Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante. With speculation in the summer that all would be sold, Leicester held on to Vardy but were powerless to prevent Kante’s departure to Antonio Conte’s new look Chelsea side for £32 million. Despite rumours linking him with Arsenal and Chelsea, Riyad has stayed put thus far, but according to City legend Gerry Taggart, the Foxes should cash in on their Algerian star if a £50 million bid arises, so let us examine that argument.
Hull City 2 Leicester City 1, the first time the reigning champions have lost on the opening day since 1989. Especially embarrassing given that the Tigers have no manager, only 13 fit first team players and were forced into deploying midfielder Jake Livermore at centre-back. Leicester never looked like scoring after Mahrez had equalised from the spot and he was fairly ineffective all game, struggling against a tightly packed Hull back line. Whilst this can be forgiven, his general attitude was poor. He barely celebrated after scoring his penalty and did not come over to thank the travelling foxes fans after the game. As a team, Leicester were poor, but a key to this was the lack of with. In the first half, Mahrez and fellow winger Demari Gray constantly cut inside every time they got the ball, often with little pace allowing Hull to get 10 men behind the ball. The second half was even worse, with Mahrez dropping far too short into central midfield, generally getting in the way of Danny Drinkwater and leaving City with no options on the right wing at all; with Danny Simpson struggling to get forward. The former Manchester United right-back commented last season that he can often sit back and let Riyad split half of the opposition defence, but this was certainly not the case on Saturday.
It was a similar story towards the end of Leicester’s amazing title winning season, more and more teams seem to suss Mahrez out. Against strugglers Sunderland and Norwich he barely had a kick, emphasising the belief that when faced with packed defences, his game suffers. The surprise factor of the beginning of the season was also gone, with Mahrez finding the net on only 3 occasions after Christmas. As a fan, he is a very frustrating player to watch, producing an amazing piece of skill one minute (e.g leaving 3 Villa players sat on the floor with a dummy), then completely fluffing his lines the next (two seconds later dragging the shot tamely wide).
However, it is just that detail that makes him the amazing player he is. Riyad is capable of some truly spectacular goals, assists and moments of sheer brilliance. His highlight real from 2015/16 is superb, with amazing goals against Chelsea and Manchester City mixed in with numerous assists with clever flicks and through balls; the key to providing Vardy with so many of his goals. Also, just look at the dumbfounded expression on Philip Wollscheid’s face after Mahrez’s flip-flap nutmeg in the 3-0 win over Stoke, just fantastic. It’s something Mahrez has been doing since he arrived at the club from Le Harve in January 2014 for, in hindsight, a scarcely believable £400,000. On first impressions, he looked like a scrawny, lightweight winger who wouldn’t suit the English game. In fact, Leicester’s head of recruitment Steve Walsh only spotted the young Algerian whilst scouting another prospect (Ryan Mendes). It turned out that Riyad was a vital cog in the machine that would propel Nigel Pearson’s side to over 100 points. If any fan wonders what Mahrez was like before the Premier League, take a look at his performance against Blackpool in March 2014. 1-0 down, he changed the game, bending it a 30-yard screamer before setting up Wes Morgan and Kevin Phillips to give City the points.
For the last 2 years, Mahrez has been Leicester’s playmaker, a star, the prime example of excellent recruitment and patience paying off. He’s arguably in the prime of his career, could the Foxes cope without him? Some would say no, but this could be doing a disservice to the alternative wingers in the squad. Jeffrey Schlupp appears to be on his way out (at the time of writing), a real shame given his dynamic albeit erratic abilities. Make no mistake, he shouldn’t be sold given his sheer pace and the fact he can play pretty much anywhere. Not to mention he was the best player in pre-season from the games I went to. Being honest, Schlupp is not Mahrez and could never really replace him, their styles of play are simply too different. Schlupp has the pace that can outdo most, but his first touch is nothing compared to Riyad. In two youngsters, Gray and Bartosz Kapustka, Leicester have fantastic prospects, the latter being rated as the best young Polish footballer in the last 30 years. But the best thing for them? To learn from certainly the most talented player I’ve ever seen in a Leicester shirt.
He may be a divisive player, especially amongst older fans from what’s shouted at him every week, but if Leicester have any hope of progressing in the Champions League, they have to keep hold of their star. There’s a lot of money being waved about in the Premier League at present, but City really have to ask themselves, even if they gain £50-60 million from selling Riyad, are the long term effects really worth it? I hope their conclusion is a resounding no.