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FEATURE | Has Riyad Mahrez made a mistake in committing to Leicester?

After a memorable Euro 2016 was concluded by the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo finally laying his hands on International silverware, hosts France finished as runner’s up after performing admirably enough to restore a nation’s pride and England were yet again left embarrassed in their quest for international success, the football conveyer belt continues to roll with the 2016/17 Premier League beginning with typical aplomb.

Arsenal lost the opening weekend’s standout opener in a 4-3 thriller against Jürgen Klopp’s resurgent Liverpool, while the Manchester clubs have already asserted their influence at the top of the table with back to back victories.

And while the blue half of Manchester revels in the stewardship of Barcelona and Bayern Munich’s previous messiah Pep Guardiola, the red half has welcomed the Spaniard’s former nemesis and serial winner José Mourinho as well as one-time former prodigy Paul Pogba back to Old Trafford in a world record £89 million deal.

But while the latest record breaker accompanies two of the greatest club managers of modern times to the Premier League, it is the superstar of last season that continues to draw the headlines.

Riyad Mahrez was the Premier League Player of the Season last campaign, scoring 17 goals and claiming 11 assists as Leicester defied logic and critics to lift the fabled trophy against all the odds. Braced for an influx of suitors for the trio that made such a feat possible, it is in fact only N’Golo Kanté, the little Frenchman that made such a profound impact last season, who has moved on.

Jamie Vardy turned down Arsenal to stay at the King Power stadium amidst concern he would not suit the Gunner’s playing style and receive regular playing time. And while Kanté was swayed by a move to Antonio Conte’s new look Chelsea, it seems Mahrez has decided to follow in the footsteps of his English teammate by signing a new four-year deal.

While this could be a move to satisfy Leicester’s desire to receive maximum compensation should the Algerian be tempted away from the reigning Champions, or it is simply a realisation no-one is prepared to pay what Leicester are demanding for their title winning catalyst of last season, such a move has serious ramifications for both club and player.

Has he been disillusioned by the lack of a big money move, forced to reluctantly commit to a team unlikely to perform with the same vigour and verge as last season?

Or has he decided to ignore potential suitors and commit his future to a club on the rise, competing in the Champions League, ready to battle with an influx of world class managers now at the help for the new season?

Either truth carries with it significant caveats, and despite any possible sense of altruism on Mahrez’s part, his decision to stay at Leicester has the potential to be a career-ruining one.

The value of his stock has never been higher, but the decision to stay and taste Champions League football at the King Power stadium is risky. Last season, N’Golo Kanté was arguably the most important member of Leicester’s holy trinity that propelled the Foxes to the Premier League title.

Should they suffer a drop in form and results in the new season without him then Mahrez, the Algerian winger who took the league by storm last season, could be the standout casualty.

As Leicester look to juggle the rigour of European and Domestic football on both fronts, it could see the Algerian’s value fall dramatically, and his chance of a lucrative move away to one of the behemoths of club football ebb away with it.

So the question is will Riyad Mahrez’s upward trajectory be halted in a Leicester side newly burdened by European football, and unlikely to be able to repeat the sensational form that brought them worldwide acclaim?

It is a cruel irony witnessed many times. Any player who experiences a significant bloom in form at any time in their short and turbulent careers and sees their value increase exponentially, is often highly sought after by the biggest European clubs flexing their financial muscle.

A new deal is often swiftly forthcoming from their existing club, whether that be out of genuine loyalty form both parties, by the player successfully forcing an improved contract, or as the club itself attempts to protect its investments and attract maximum value from their new superstar.

But as history has proved many times, moving to a bigger club just as their form peaks more often than not results in a subsequent downturn in form, as dramatic and sudden as the upturn in form that got them their dream move in the first place.

Taking time to come to terms with a higher level of technical quality in their new team, new teammates, managers, tactics, culture, languages and geography all play their part – things that ordinarily would be researched and accounted for.

But for signings on a whim, for the players who enjoy short and sharp upturns in form, their desirability is often as short lived as their form, and clubs looking to sign the latest ‘galactico’ often base their decision on the talent on the field, not the personnel behind it.

In short, this means once a player enters a new environment, as a result of the fruits of his labour and good form, the human factors start to become prevalent, not football.

Often a new player, unless in the rare occasion they have the pedigree to command any differently, are eased into a new starting XI, meaning less playing time and fewer opportunities to continue the form that earned them the move in the first place.

And any loss of form means a drop in transfer value, less exposure, less popularity and less impact on the pitch. But are the risks for staying put even greater for a player such as Mahrez, who has undoubtedly just enjoyed the best season of his career to date?

Are the potential rewards for chancing his arm at one of Europe’s elite clubs worth the risk to his short term performances, or is staying behind and watching Leicester struggle to reach the heights of last season now an inescapable prospect?

One of the reasons for Leicester’s unparalleled triumph last season was their sheer unpredictability. No-one would have ever expected them to achieve what they did, or even close to it. So as their results continued to come, the question was not how far they could go, but when would it end.

A good start to the season became a good winning streak, which became a good half season, which snowballed into an eventually unstoppable wave of momentum that carried them to the title, on the back of a nation’s media and public outpouring of support and encouragement for them to achieve the impossible.

Their tactics were still being fine-tuned at the start of last season, where Ranieri was taking over from previous incumbent Nigel Pearson and adding a splash of flair to an otherwise solid if not unspectacular team who had ended the season before on a similar vein of form to the start of the next.

The Italian did not reshape the squad, tinker with his players or change their mentality, instead instilling complete confidence in the approach that best suited their game, a fast counter attacking sucker punch to any team willing to take them on.

As the team acclimatised to the subtle mutations from their previous system, the players began to blossom, but more importantly the results kept coming.

Kanté was a revelation as his incredible midfield energy knitted defence with attack, meanwhile Jamie Vardy was the endless runner, the crazed attacker forever chasing and harassing opponents, and providing Leicester with the perfect attacking outlet with his searing pace.

That left Mahrez, the little Algerian to provide something just a little bit different. Vardy had the pace and the pressure, Kante had the engine and ability to dispossess the opponents with aplomb.

Mahrez was left to provide the je ne sais quoi to a team fast gelling into a side with solid foundations, a lethal attack and more importantly, complete confidence in their own ability.

Cutting in from the right onto his favoured left foot, an almost telepathic understanding with Jamie Vardy and moments of quality that just kept Leicester ticking over with enough momentum to maintain their title push, he was not the most integral member of that famous Leicester side, but without his influence history would be very different.

So what of his future? Could his decision to stay be seen as a mediocre reward for a player seemingly destined for more?

Or has he chosen with his head not his heart, to remain with the wily Italian manager capable of extracting his maximum talent, in a team that is entirely geared for him to perform, on the verge of gracing the Champion’s League for the very first time?

As Euro 2016 took the limelight this summer, there were rumours and whispers that the Algerian would be moving, as there was with everyone who contributed to Leicester’s title triumph.

Should he go, he could have attracted the attention of any number of Europe’s leading clubs. But as it was announced that Mahrez had committed to a new four-year deal, fans and critics alike can only watch on and see how the latest chapter in the little winger’s story unfolds.

But amidst any euphoria at tying down their crown jewel to a new long term deal, one this is certain. Leicester will not be the same team as last season. It is a fact that cannot be questioned.

The cornerstones of their success last season were momentum and consistency. Leicester relied on the same starting XI more often than not, with players such as striker Shinji Okazaki and winger Mark Albrighton willing to play the roles of support acts to the main ensemble, ready to make an impact when called upon.

Such longevity will not be possible as the club struggles to come to terms with European fixtures, as well as domestic silverware on offer. Changes will have to be made, tactics will have to be changed, and personnel will have to be rotated.

While this means another season of wonder and excitement for fans up and down the country, to witness the Foxes battling it out amongst Europe’s finest, it means the cornerstones of last season are now gone; their tactics that once confounded opponents have been found out. Leicester are no longer the underdogs or the surprise package.

The surprise knock-out blow that ripped into the soft underbelly of England’s complacent top 6 monopoly last season is no longer such a prized asset, as much as a well-honed and familiar weapon in their repertoire.

The chinks in their armour left unexposed by England’s cash rich and bloated elite will not be spared by Europe’s counterparts and they will be brutally exposed for all to see. Leicester will have to add to their arsenal if they are to hope of achieving any repeat of last year.

Players like Mahrez and now a known quantity and will be treated as such; his aura of unpredictability and his burgeoning reputation is no longer something to take teams by surprise, and he will be rewarded for his upturn in form by being shackled and man marked by the defences he wishes to exploit.

It will take something special for him to exert the same influence as he did the season before, and that is even if is heart is truly in it this time around. Last year every member of that title winning side pulled in the same direction, willing themselves over the line, desperate to see how far they could go and what dreams they could achieve.

This year, Champion’s League football may been seen as little consolation if they are to be knocked out at the first hurdle, a shadow of their former selves. Going down with a sinking ship is never seen as a wise move, no matter how brave, and Mahrez has made a huge gamble to stay at the King Power stadium.

But hope should not be lost. Football is after all a cathedral of unpredictability, and while their success of last season was a wonder to behold, it was not unprecedented in the greater context.

Yes, one can rightfully point to the finances of the modern game and ascertain that such a feat may never be achieved again, but a team rising from the depths to taste domestic and European glory has been done before.

Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest will forever be remembered for what they achieved, and in the manner in which they achieved it. They enjoyed success in similar circumstances albeit in a different era, but they are living proof that Mahrez’s decision to stay does not have to be the poisoned chalice it potentially promises to be.

If Leicester cannot feasibly respond to their upgraded expectations and European commitments, then Mahrez could well find himself regretting his decision, as he prepares to spend a difficult season disillusioned, down in form, unhappy and dreaming of pastures new.

But should The Foxes enjoy any sliver of success this season, and Leicester carve out any credible momentum yet again, then his decision to stay could well be vindicated yet.

No-one can rightfully point to Mahrez’s decision to stay as a right or wrong one yet, and indeed the Algerian faces anxious times ahead as he himself bears the fruits of his labours.

It is a risk of course, and the fears are that he, and his team, will simply not be the same as they were last season. But, had he gone, equal moments of uncertainty were guaranteed. A new team does not automatically equal success either.

In familiar surroundings, with a manager capable of extracting every ounce of his talent to push him to the next level, a system that suits him, and a fan base desperate for him to grace the European stage, it just might all add up to another fairy-tale for Riyad Mahrez.

In the crazed and illogical world of professional football, there is no reason he cannot be a standout achiever once again, after all as Leicester themselves proved last season, nothing is impossible. As their new adventure unfolds, only time will tell if committing his future to Leicester ruined his career, or made it.

J.G.B

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