It is hard to believe that little over three years ago, a young and budding Algerian footballer was plying his trade in the French second division, turning out each week for mid-table outfit Le Havre.
The career of Leicester City winger Riyad Mahrez has certainly taken its fair share of twists and turns in the years that have followed, and he’s a player that has managed to regularly capture the attention of the Premier League – for both the good and the bad – since switching across to England.
Notoriously, he was the relatively unknown talisman of the most unlikely title triumph, playing the protagonist in a fairy-tale story that will go down into the long-term history of England’s top division.
It was the breakthrough that the boy from Algeria had always dreamt of, scoring 17 goals and contributing 11 assists as he – alongside another man with a fairy-tale story in Jamie Vardy – spearheaded Leicester’s shock title win. Mahrez had all of a sudden catapulted himself to the pinnacle of football.
He swept the board in terms of end of season accolades, earning a spot in the PFA Team of the Year for his contribution before becoming the first African player to claim the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award, and the speculation of interest from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid was firmly justified.
This reported interest from a host of global giants signified just how far Mahrez’s progress had travelled, and how the world viewed his raw talent, and this was backed up by his seventh-place Ballon d’Or finish.
Yet, it seems that as quickly as he built this reputation for himself, he lost it.
Claudio Ranieri – the mastermind behind Leicester’s title triumph – denied him his dream move away from the King Power in the summer of 2016 amidst interest from the Premier League big boys, convincing him to sign a new four-year deal at the club, and his form immediately started to decline.
At the time it seemed like the Leicester winger was merely throwing his toys out the pram at being forced to remain with the Foxes and he visibly struggled on the pitch to continue the momentum that he had built up in the campaign before, although this wasn’t helped by Leicester’s struggles to grind out results.
Ranieri eventually left, replaced by caretaker manager Craig Shakespeare, and although Leicester’s results on the field picked up the same couldn’t really be said about the performances of the winger.
Over the past nine months, since Shakespeare’s takeover at the helm, there have been the odd glimpse of the Mahrez of old but these glimpses have all-too quickly been replaced by mediocrity.
Perhaps what’s indicative of Mahrez’s gradual demise in the past 18 months was the fact that he failed to make the recently announced 30-man shortlist for the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) African Player of the Year – an award he claimed for himself just 12 months ago for his title-winning exploits.
In the midst of his decline in form was yet another summer transfer saga, with Mahrez this time being heavily linked to Arsenal, Roma and Barcelona amongst others, and the Algerian seemingly took his future into his own hands when he openly handed in a written transfer request at Leicester.
This open letter, as relayed by the Independent in late May, stated:
“Out of the huge admiration and respect I hold for Leicester City Football Club I wanted to be totally honest and transparent with them and have therefore informed the club that I feel now is the time for me to move on.
“I had a good discussion with the Chairman last summer and we agreed at that time that I would stay for another year in order to help the club as best as I could following the transition of winning the title and in the Champions League.
“However, I am fiercely ambitious and feel that now is the time to move on to a new experience.”
However, unfortunately for Mahrez it was the case of a different manager, same situation, as new boss Shakespeare did all in his power to ensure that the 26-year-old remained a Leicester man in August.
There wouldn’t have been many Leicester fans that would have expected to see Mahrez still at the club come September 1, particularly when he was permitted to leave the Algerian national camp to finalise a perceived move to Barcelona, but this move away failed to materialise for the second time.
It’s a move that only this week has been put back in the spotlight following comments from Roma director of football Monchi, who admitted that both his club and Barcelona were adamantly told no.
Speaking to Italian news outlet Gazetta dello Sport, as quoted by the Daily Mail, Monchi is quoted as saying:
“We wanted a left-footed winger to replace Mohamed Salah and put it all on Mahrez, but the only reason he didn’t come was because the club wouldn’t sell.
“It’s not an excuse, they said no to Barcelona too.”
With Mahrez all of a sudden very publicly being kept at the King Power against his will as the 2017-18 campaign got into full flow there were questions marks over whether he would continue in a similar vein to the summer before, where there were theories circulating of him having a severe attitude issue.
Any such theories have quickly fallen by the wayside, however.
To his credit, Mahrez has acquitted himself excellently to the task at hand as Leicester look to strive for the European spots once again, and there has been no sign of any deadline day hangover so far.
There is little doubt that there was an overriding feeling of disappointment coursing through his veins after missing out on his dream move but the 26-year-old has shown admirable maturity since and, out of nowhere, his performances on the pitch are starting to grow an element of consistency once again.
It is arguable that he’s learnt his lesson from the previous summer, and that he is now playing for his transfer away next year, but Leicester fans won’t care as long as he continues to gives his all on the pitch.
Whilst Leicester’s results have been far from ideal – resulting in Shakespeare being relieved of his managerial duties – the arrival of ex-Southampton man Claude Puel could be Mahrez’s second chance.
Puel has already vowed to ‘seduce’ the winger into remaining at the King Power in the long-term, and whilst this might be a stretch too far he has already got him performing after just two games in charge.
In an interview with the Telegraph, the Frenchman spoke about Mahrez and said:
“It is down to me to make these players want to stay by the fact we are playing good football. I have always got to attract them, to seduce them. It is down to me to create that environment where these players want to thrive and stay enjoy themselves, their football and the plans that we have.
“It is normal for a player, if they win the title and play Champions League, that sometimes there is disappointment, frustration because now they know the high level.”
It seems that whatever the new Leicester manager has been saying behind closed doors has been working wonders too, with Mahrez showing signs of getting back to some sort of form close to his best during the thoroughly entertaining 2-2 stalemate away at Stoke City on Saturday lunchtime.
The 26-year-old was a constant thorn in the Stoke defence, providing a potent threat on the counter-attack, and he sent the Potters twisting and turning on his way to scoring his second of the season.
It was a goal reminiscent of his magnificent effort against Chelsea during Leicester’s title-winning year and whilst it’s too premature to suggest he’s back at that level, the early signs are filled with promise.
Puel has already started to eliminate the bad habits that he had started to pick up, with the Algerian feeling the need to leave his flank and go in search of the ball in the past, but the new system in place with Demarai Gray on the opposite flank has him hugging the right touch-line more frequently.
Puel knows that Mahrez is his key man and still enables him the freedom to roam inside in possession of the ball, and it was a tactic that paid dividends on a number of occasions at Stoke.
Perhaps most critically though is that the 26-year-old is starting to build up some confidence and a cocksure approach to his football that made him so effective in the 2015-16 season, and it’s all down to him being back in the goals – he’s either scored or assisted in each of Leicester’s last five games.
The appointment of Puel at the King Power was met with a fair amount of trepidation but it seems that his impact is already gradually coming through on the pitch, with four points earnt from a possible six.
Puel’s main project is clear, to lift Leicester back up to where they should be in the table, but he knows his side project is to resurrect the career of Mahrez – and it’ll be interesting to see how it now develops.
Mahrez’s long-term future will remain in doubt indefinitely but, for now, the priority is raising his morale each week, and time will tell whether the Algerian can re-find the heights of his breakthrough campaign.