Just last summer, Riyad Mahrez was one of the hottest names on the summer transfer market, coming off a superb season in which he won PFA Player of the Year and guided Leicester City to an improbable league title.
Now, that market, while still intrigued by his prospects, seems to have cooled significantly, despite the fact he handed in a transfer request exactly one month ago. Following a 2016/17 which saw his goal contribution significantly decrease from 28 (17 goals, 11 assists) the season before to nine (six goals, three assists) last season, many have already labelled the Algerian international a one-hit wonder.
That label is an easy and understandable one to use, especially given the state of his club. Despite further extending their Cinderella narrative by reaching the quarterfinals of their maiden Champions League campaign, Leicester’s predictable fall back to Earth hit the ground with a thud, mounting the joint-worst EPL title defence ever by finishing with 37 points less than their 2015/16 coronation. After all, this team was filled with a bunch of journeymen, free transfers and led by a striker who was playing non-league football just five years ago. Thus, it’s easy to surmise that Mahrez simply overachieved for a team who played above and beyond their actual talent level to achieve the successes they have the last two years.
But given the departure of the man who succeeded Mahrez as PFA Player of the Year, N’Golo Kanté, last summer, the book on the Leicester winger cannot simply be closed. No player suffered more from Kanté’s absence in the heart of the Foxes midfield than Mahrez. With Kanté as a perfect shield to win back the ball, use his vision and quickly launch counter attacks, Mahrez had the freedom to roam in space on the flanks and take on singular markers in order to create shooting lanes for himself and teammates to occupy. Once the French midfielder departed, Mahrez had to come deeper for the ball and with no other real individual skill merchant to worry about, teams sent extra markers to guard him, forcing him either to release the ball earlier or play the safe pass back to midfield. He’s not the type to take hopeless shots either, putting 64% of his shots on target, the same accuracy rate as 2015/16.
Last season, Mahrez completed 78 dribbles, down from a ridiculous 131 in 2015/16. His pass completion improved from 74% to 78%, but that mainly came down to the fact he played more short and backward passes to keep things safe after often being cornered by multiple defenders. Once Leicester finally filled that gaping void centrally with mid-season signing, Wilfried Ndidi, some semblance of Mahrez’s old form came back, scoring all three of his goals from open play last season after his arrival and looking less burdened than usual.