Realistically, there was only one direction for everyone at Leicester after last season’s stunning exploits, but few of their title winners have suffered a comedown quite like Riyad Mahrez. Claudio Ranieri aside, of course.
Mahrez, last season’s PFA Player of the Year, has struggled to match last term’s output in almost every metric. With three games to go, the winger is 11 goals and eight assists down on last season, and he has created only two-thirds of the number of chances in comparison. The Algerian has attempted more crosses, but his accuracy is way down, from 29 per cent to 13 per cent. A deterioration in form was perhaps to be expected, though a dip in intensity is perhaps less excusable but certainly understandable.
At least during the 3-0 win against Watford on Saturday, Mahrez appeared to fancy it rather more. Having cut a disconsolate figure upon being hooked towards the end of last week’s win at West Brom, the Algerian was back in the starting XI to face the Hornets and had a more industrious performance rewarded with a well-taken goal on his 100th Premier League appearance.
Craig Shakespeare said he had to ‘put his arm around’ Mahrez after his withdrawal last week, and while some encouragement from his manager likely helped, the winger is also sure to have gained some motivation from the looming transfer window.
Reports this week suggest Mahrez is looking to leave Leicester this summer, with a taste of the Champions League said to have whetted his appetite for more. But, in keeping with his form for much of the season, has Mahrez mistimed his run?
At no point was Mahrez likely to be more in-demand than last summer, as was the case for Jamie Vardy and N’golo Kante. Kante took the opportunity of a new challenge and looks almost certain to earn another title winners’ medal with Chelsea and perhaps the FA Cup too. Vardy and Mahrez stayed, signing bumper new contracts, and though their earning power hasn’t suffered, their career prospects almost certainly have.
Arsenal wanted both last summer, while Barcelona were also said to be sniffing around Mahrez. The logic behind Vardy’s decision to stay at the King Power Stadium was easy to explain: his style is perfectly suited to the Foxes and would he play regularly if he made the step up to a club like the Gunners? Mahrez, though, is the most typically Arsenal player who doesn’t actually play for Arsenal. His reluctance to capitalise on his sky-high stock is a little tougher to fathom and the queue of suitors this summer is sure to be shorter.
Where Barca were said to be interested last year, it seems Marseille are Mahrez’s highest-profile admirer. That is no slight on OM, but as they sit 22 points off third place in Ligue 1 and the Champions League berths, it highlights the quality of options Mahrez will have this year compared to 12 months ago.
While Leicester were keen to keep their title winners together ahead of their debut in the Champions League, this summer is likely to be a different story. The Foxes appear to have a ready-made replacement for Mahrez in Demarai Gray, who himself is said to be considering his options if more playing time isn’t offered.
Mahrez may make a step up this summer, but it is almost certainly not going to be the leap he could have taken a year ago.