Two years after Riyad Mahrez led Leicester to the most unlikely of league titles, the magic has gone. Not from Mahrez’s footwork, but from the relationship he once had with the Leicester fans. The Algerian lodged a transfer request in January in an attempt to force through a move to Manchester City, and then refused to train for a week when the move fell through.
Mahrez came crawling back with his tail between his legs, but any attempts to make amends have been half-hearted to say the least. In the three months since then, he’s managed just three goals and one assist.
It’s not just Mahrez though. Leicester have won just three of eleven games since the Algerian returned and manager Claude Puel is probably on his way out. It had all started so well for Puel, whose side won four consecutive games at the end of 2017, with Mahrez scoring in three of them. Then he handed in the transfer request and everything started to go wrong.
This is not the first time that Mahrez has been the catalyst for a Leicester collapse. The season after their Premier League win, Leicester were 16th at the turn of the year and Mahrez had just three league goals. Yet strangely, this form had not carried over to the Champions League. Leicester won their group and Mahrez was their top scorer with four.
In February, title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri was sacked and replaced by his assistant Craig Shakespeare, and all of a sudden Leicester started winning again. Five in a row, actually, doubling their tally of wins for the whole season. Mahrez, who hadn’t found the net since November, broke his goal drought in Shakespeare’s second game.
That form didn’t reappear at the start of this season, as Shakespeare was sacked after just one win from eight games. Mahrez, with just one goal, had gone AWOL again. When Puel was appointed, the Algerian found his form once more, scoring seven goals before the transfer request debacle.
New managers having a positive impact on performances and morale is to be expected, but at Leicester it is happening too often to be a coincidence. Ranieri, Shakespeare and Puel have all gotten the best out of their players at first, only to be let down over time.
No player’s performances are more symptomatic of Leicester’s mood than those of Mahrez, but this presents a “chicken and the egg” question. Is it that Leicester’s performances are affecting Mahrez, or is it the other way around?
He isn’t the only one about whom we could ask this question. Jamie Vardy also magically rediscovered his form after Ranieri’s dismissal, scoring five goals in Shakespeare’s first five games after netting the same number in his previous 22 matches.
The phrase bandied about after Ranieri’s sacking was ‘player power’. It’s an obvious problem with the way a football club is run: the manager gets sacked, but the players don’t, so they can pick and choose when they want a change of tune.
Proving a deliberate lack of effort is difficult, though. You can point at results, but there are many possible explanations for that, including vague and ill-defined phrases like ‘lost the dressing room’ and ‘haven’t gelled’. You can whip out statistics about distances covered, but running about a lot is neither a sure-fire guarantee of success nor an indicator of one’s commitment.
Plenty of us said that we simply ‘knew’ it was player power, because how else could Leicester’s demise be explained. But is this not hypocritical? We’d spent the whole of the previous season marvelling at the achievements of Leicester’s average squad, so why were we surprised when they went back to being average the following year?
Mahrez wasn’t the only one who came in for criticism. Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Danny Drinkwater – all heroes of the year before were now under scrutiny. But Mahrez and Vardy were the only two, aside from the departed N’Golo Kante, whose class seemed permanent rather than temporary.
Vardy has redeemed himself this season. Unlike Mahrez his performances haven’t wavered. While Shakespeare was struggling and Mahrez was under-par at the start of the season, Vardy was still banging in the goals, with five in the first six games as he tried in vain to keep his manager in a job.
When Puel came in, Vardy’s strike rate actually dropped off considerably, possibly because he wasn’t having to carry the team all of a sudden. Only when Mahrez dropped out in January did Vardy get back among the goals, scoring in all three games that the Algerian missed. His form has remained unchanged, even in a season of very indifferent form. So what’s your excuse, Riyad?
Rumours linking Mahrez with a move to Manchester City have resurfaced, and Leicester will probably fight tooth and nail to keep him. But – and this is going to sound crazy – it might not be the worst thing in the world if they just let him go.
Even if the players aren’t deliberately conspiring to get managers sacked, there’s obviously something rotten in the state of Leicester. The correlation between Leicester’s form and Mahrez’s performances is alarming, and the Foxes will be stuck in the same cycle as long as this continues.
Mahrez is the ringleader behind every manager’s demise, whether he knows it or not. Other players look to him as their inspiration, and if he isn’t performing, it can be damaging to the whole team. And when the most important player at the club wants to leave, what sort of message does that send out?
Mahrez’s part in Leicester’s finest hour will never be forgotten, but the time has come to wave goodbye to the past and usher in a new generation. Leicester might never be title-challengers again, but the money from Mahrez’s sale will also ensure that they are a Premier League side long after he has gone.