Amongst the cynicism in the league that has developed over United’s boring style of play, Chelsea’s woes and questions over the quality of the league, seeing underdogs Leicester City delight at the top has given the Premier League a much needed boost.
While Jamie Vardy has rightly taken much praise for breaking the Premier League record for goals in consecutive games, the brain of the team and the most appreciated player by Fantasy Football enthusiasts this year has been a previously unknown Algerian – Riyad Mahrez.
Mahrez may not have been working in a factory or may not have been plucked from non-league like Jamie Vardy but he also came from relative obscurity. Leicester City signed Mahrez from Ligue 2 side Le Havre.
Mahrez, who turned 23 a month after arrival, had made little to no impression on the world of football. He had not even been capped by Algeria when ingenious scouting discovered a top-quality player that no-one else saw come to the King Power Stadium for a pittance.
A fee of only £350k was required to gain the services of the winger, which looks like being one of the best bargains in the league’s history. Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri has said that now there is ‘no price’ you could buy Mahrez for.
Mahrez has exploded to life this season and is definitely in the conversation for PFA Player of the Year. He has scored 11 goals from the wing in 15 appearances, with 7 assists.
On WhoScored.com, Mahrez is rated as the third best player in Europe this season with only Neymar and Lionel Messi ahead of him. According to WhoScored, he has been better than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski and Douglas Costa to name a few. He has the most successful take-ons in the Premier League this season with 54.
Yet stats don’t even paint the entire picture for Mahrez, no matter how impressive they are. It is the elegance of Riyad Mahrez that makes him stand out above all. His thin physique gives him a languid style that makes him extra elusive.
His running style is light on his feet, he glides past opponents. This gazelle-like evasion has tormented Premier League defenders. Cesar Azpilicueta was latest highly regarded full-back to fall victim to the shimmies and feints of the Algerian.
He achieves this operating as essentially a traditional winger in a standard 4-4-2 formation. Leicester are having great success playing this fast-paced English football style and Mahrez adds the sprinkle.
Leicester are not worried about conceding midfield and thus possession. They realise that that the greater freedom allowed to Mahrez because of the two forwards ahead of him creating space is worth the risk.
Leicester’s simple tactic of trusting their best winger with almost all of the creative responsibility has worked a treat at Leicester. It is a throwback to the days where managers would check first to see if a tricky winger was playing for their opponents and make plans accordingly. Mahrez is that winger and opponents are scared.
In total, Mahrez and Vardy have scored 25 league goals between them and truly are a golden partnership at the moment. Everyone expects this previously unheralded duo to stop their scoring spree yet they continue to perform. To put into context how well they are doing, they have scored more goals this season than £200m Real Madrid trio Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have in La Liga.
It is hard to see Mahrez’s run as just a purple patch. His skillset is too advanced and at 24 years old, it is perfectly reasonable that he may only be hitting his stride now. The biggest test for Leicester coming up is to keep Mahrez if they are to have any chance of Champions League qualification. Because he will on the radar of all teams across Europe at the moment. Not bad for a player who cost only £350k.