Riyad Mahrez deserves credit for his professionalism at Leicester amid transfer speculation
Some players seem destined for the top no matter what, but others need the stars to align first. Riyad Mahrez will have returned to Leicester City’s training ground in July thinking he would likely be saying his goodbyes soon enough. To many, he’d stayed a year too long and, given how the Foxes fell to earth with a hefty bump last season in their failure to defend their Premier League crown, he may be inclined to agree.
The Algerian international made it clear towards the end of last season that he would be expecting to leave the King Power Stadium this summer. During the 2015/16 campaign, almost certainly the most remarkable in Premier League history, Mahrez was a driving force in Leicester’s title challenge, scoring 17 goals and winning the PFA Player of the Year award. Rumours were rife over his future in the immediate aftermath, but links with Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona and Tottenham were futile and he stayed. Reports suggested, though, that the situation would be revisited in a year’s time.
Three games into the new campaign, Mahrez remains, undoubtedly growing in frustration as those dream moves continue to elude him. Many saw his best, and possibly only, chance of a big-money transfer coming in that summer, similarly to Jamie Vardy who decided to turn his back on Arsenal to sign a new contract. N’Golo Kante, who signed for Chelsea, was the only major departure, and the pair chose to stay loyal and see the project through by donning the Leicester shirt in the Champions League.
A run to the quarter finals was the bright light in an otherwise dark season, which saw a relegation-threatened Leicester sack manager Claudio Ranieri just nine months after he led them to their historic triumph, before current boss Craig Shakespeare steered them to a twelfth placed finish. It was clear then that if Mahrez wanted more tastes of the big time, he’d have to leave as soon as he could.
Once again, the speculation began to increase but very little in the way of concrete interest has been registered all summer. Arsenal have flirted with the possibility of a deal, perhaps as preparation for the seemingly inevitable departure of Alexis Sanchez, while Roma have reportedly had two bids rejected.
But while some players take to television interviews to not only make their plans clear but ensure their club has to sell them because of how unhappy they are, and others plainly go on strike, Mahrez deserves huge credit.
A negative transfer saga can detrail an entire club’s plans for the season ahead, with Barcelona feeling the affects of Neymar moving to Paris Saint-Germain by hastily looking to replace him with his Brazilian teammate Philippe Coutinho, which has put Liverpool in a very awkward position with less than a week to go until the transfer deadline. Mahrez has not said a bad word against Leicester despite any understandable frustrations at not being able to take the next step in his career; much better than that, the 26-year-old has continued to play for the team as they look to rebuild after a crazy few years both battling relegation and English football’s finest for the top honour.
Of course, to counter his desire to depart Leicester, there are so many examples of players who have got their ‘big break’ and failed to make any sort of impact and ended up in the football wilderness. Right now, Mahrez is still a hot commodity and a vital part of Shakespeare’s plans at Leicester, in many was the key man and the go-to creative force. It has become so cliché, but heading to Arsenal, Liverpool or even Roma, still on the lookout for a replacement for Mohamed Salah who signed for the Reds, would almost certainly reduce his importance in games. In a team that plays through him, he has the freedom to express himself where as elsewhere he would be another member of a very good team.
But football is exactly that, a team game. More often than not, players value team trophies over individual ones, as Mahrez may be able to attest after his dream season two years ago. There is a sense he has outgrown Leicester, because even though no one expected the Foxes to retain their crown or even be at the sharp end of the race again, they have probably fallen below expectations domestically since in Mahrez’s mind. To progress at the King Power, he needs regular exposure to the top level in Europe, be it the Champions League or Europa League. In reality, that is not likely, and Leicester are beginning to return to the shadows.
But that is not to say there is nothing for them to look forward to. Kelechi Ihranacho and Harry Maguire are two very accomplished signings and the team has maintained its blend of dogged determination and flair, courtesy of Mahrez.
Sometimes, though, players must put themselves first. Riyad Mahrez will be wary of fading away and will want to move on and stay relevant for the good of his career. Yet, unlike so many other players, he has been a model professional, continuing to give his all for the team until the moment he leaves; that should be commended and Leicester should be thankful.