Speaking in an extensive, exclusive interview with France Football, Leicester City attacker Riyad Mahrez discussed a whirlwind 12 months which saw him become the Premier League’s best player in 2016.
Three months after becoming Premier League champions, do you realise the enormity of your achievement?
Months have gone by and yes, I have started to really understand that we have won the league. At the time, it was difficult to understand, we were caught up in the moment, there were lots of interviews to do, so we struggled to really understand. But now, after several weeks, we have started to understand what we have accomplished.
We played several pre-season matches, against PSG, Barcelona… Messi and all of the players congratulated us for the title. It was really touching coming from such big names. It is also through that that you understand just how much Leicester has touched the rest of Europe.
And in the streets? Are the people of Leicester still going on about it?
Everyone speaks to me about it, it is crazy! Especially as the season has not yet restarted (when the interview occurred). In the street, you cannot walk without being stopped every 20 metres. People say to us: “Thank you.” We are part of their lives.
And for the players, is it easy to move on?
At the start, when we met up with each other again for pre-season, we spoke about it a lot. It was normal, we had achieved something really crazy. But, quickly, the coach told us that what we did belonged to the past. That is what is funny about football: we have done an exceptional thing and two months later, we have to wipe it all away and start again.
That is football, that is life, everything goes quickly, one thing follows another. Everything is forgotten in a certain way. You are always having to prove yourself. Now, people are expecting things from us. And we will have to respond. Because nobody will do us any favours if we mess up our first matches.
Aside from that, we know that Leicester will not win the league again, we are not Manchester United or Chelsea. But, success would look like becoming part of the cohort of solid clubs in the Premier League, consistency.
There will be much more expected from you particularly…
That is clear, our opponents will be even more wary. I have already seen it during the pre-season matches and during the Community Shield match against Manchester United. People closed me down quicker when I received the ball, there was a little plan against me.
It is up to me to adapt and to continue to surprise with my positioning, the timing of my runs, the trajectories, when I call for the ball. I had a great season, with this best player title in hand, but I still need to progress everywhere: first touch, power, consistency in my efforts, my heading, etc. The key is in the efficacy.
Because, during my first season in the Premier League, I also had good matches but I did not manage an assist or a goal. So, people paid much less attention to my performances. It is also true that the team was not working well. And it is for this reason that my success last season was down to the team, because performance is a collective thing. You can not succeed on your own.
What role did Claudio Ranieri play in your success?
He immediately took me under his wing and gave me a lot of confidence. And he has brought me to be more rigorous with my game. The result of that: last year, I defended like a crazy person! He made me understand that if one of us did not defend, we were dead. With him, I also timed better the moments where one needs to press, when one needs to peel off, things like that.
It allows you be more efficient and to cope better from a physical point of view. In this sense, I have progressed because of the work demanded by the coach, but also by the invisible training: what to eat, recuperating, resting. I have matured a lot with that.
Before, I was single, I was less serious. That is normal too, I am 25, I am starting to have a certain amount of matches under my belt, and now, a family life. Stability is incredibly important. Aside from that, I still have the same friends and the same advisor.
You are just coming out of an exceptional season in terms of statistics. 17 goals and 11 assists. Are you not now condemned to repeat this performance?
Condemned, no? It is more for me that I want to achieve these sort of things, not to satisfy the way people’s view of me or people watching. But I want to consolidate these stats, even improve them, who knows. It is a challenge and I like that. In life, that is how you advance, by pushing the limits.
Will it not manifest itself as some form of pressure when you can perform very well without necessarily having such exceptional statistics?
To be good is not enough, you also have to make your team win. And, when you are an attacker, that most often happens through a goal or through an assist. Before, I did not really pay attention to that, but now it is obvious to me. The proof: before, when I did not score much, nobody really paid any attention.
Cristiano Ronaldo was not a “statistics player” either, up until 2007, where, like you, he scored 17 goals and something clicked. Do you feel that click too?
Yes certainly. I knew that I was capable of scoring goals, but, up until here, it was not happening. I have proved to myself that I had it in me. So, yes, I understand this concept of something clicking. But, be careful, I am not Cristiano, I am not at all comparing myself to him. We are not going to make things up here (laughs).
You played on the left wing for Christian Gourcuff with Algeria, and on the right for Claudio Ranieri at Leicester. Where do you feel more comfortable?
On the right or down the middle. Down the middle, it allows me to touch a lot more of the ball, to participate in the build-up, to have play open on both sides. On the right I also like being there because I can provoke (mistakes from opponents), accelerate away and leave people floundering. Both make me happy.
Enjoying myself is something very important for me, because that is why I play when all is said and done. And it also allows me to have an engine. You train better if you are enjoying yourself, no? What is funny is that last year, I also enjoyed myself in times of combat, in defending, in hanging on. We were carried by this goal of the title, of course, but also, I feel like I have reached a new level.
With your new status and the expectation that comes with it, is there not a danger that you do too much?
No, not at all. I am not crazy. I am rational on what I need to do and I am more mature. Several years ago, if I had been told to unlock a game, I would have tried to make the difference myself with each move. Today, I know very well that I cannot do it all. In the final 30 metres, I have some form of freedom, I can try things. But there are other zones where I understood that you need to keep things simple.
In France, certain individuals have put forward the claim that your title as Player of the Year was down to a weakened Premier League. What do you think?
I heard that. We also heard it when people spoke about us winning the league. People are always expecting things from the big teams, and that means that for them the little ones cannot get anywhere. Same for me. I am not a star, I come from nowhere, I landed here like that and I become the best player in the Premier League.
If you put that to one side, you realise that it was the players who voted, not journalists or fans. There are some great players in the Premier League. They did not pick me for no reason.
A champion, player of the year, do you think that your achievements would be better recognised if you belonged to a European or South American national team?
It is possible. When there is a Brazilian who is lighting things up, he is at Real Madrid before you know it! For us, it is a little harder, we have to do more.
A year ago, you wondering how on earth you hesitated before coming to England…
It is the best league in the world, the most exciting, where there is the most at stake. There is also constantly a little uncertainty. Last year, we won the league. In Spain, you will never see Levante or Granada finishing top. In France, since the new PSG, it is the same.
Same in Germany, with Bayern and Dortmund, or in Italy with Juventus. In the Premier League there is a greater depth of teams who can do it with City, Arsenal, United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool. They can all win it.
Is this the perfect league for a player of your style?
There are lots of spaces, you can take risks because the game is open. That is what I like, I have grown up with that philosophy. And it is true that, at the start, it is not at all the idea that I had of England. I thought that it was exclusively physical. Obviously it is physical, but it is far from being just that.
To adapt, I avoid a lot of duels. I am not in the middle of the park, so I am more free and I move. The key, is in the movement. Aside from that, it also depends on your team, and the dynamic that it finds itself in. But, if you possess the art of positioning yourself well, things can work. From what I experienced in France, play is a lot more blocked, more tactical.
What are the differences in preparation between England and France?
They are completely different. At Leicester, I arrive three hours before the match for example. We eat a bit together, and then we head to the match. We also have a lot of rest days. We are calmer, it is another mentality. But, again, on the pitch, we push ourselves to the limit. They give us the confidence to take responsibility for ourselves. I like that way of managing, there is a sense of liberty that works well with me.
Can you imagine playing elsewhere after tasting the Premier League?
It is a super league and I would like to stay here as long as possible. Now, there are two or three clubs in the world, that if they come for me, it definitely makes you think, if you understand what I am trying to say.
How has your newfound fame affected you on your holidays?
It was crazy! In Algeria, this summer, I could not even go out. They came in front of my family’s house. There were crazy queues for photos. I was tired, but they did not care. They had to have their photos, to speak with me, to touch me. I must have done about 3,000 or 4,000 photos in 6 days. In the village where I usually go on holiday with my dad, they have built a little astroturf pitch and we went incognito to play a little bit.
But, every day, people were there waiting because they knew that I was going to come. The police closed it up so that we could be left alone but people would not give up, jumping over the railings. In Paris too, it has become serious. Before, it used to be just be young people stopping me. Now it is all the generations.
By being a star in England, you are also exposed to the tabloids. How are you dealing with that?
I do not overthink things too much. I am not in that world. I play football, and then I go home. It is true that, in England, they are crazy at that level. Last Sunday (7th August), after a match, we found ourselves in the same hotel as Chelsea and they came up with something about that. They find the smallest thing to enter into your life. I know how to deal with it. I am not David Beckham either.
Is it possible that you will be among the 23 short-listed for the Ballon D’Or?
Honestly, I haven’t thought about it much. People have talked to me a little bit about it. That makes me happy, but I will not lose my head with it. When it comes up, maybe, I will be more interested. If it is the case, it would truly be very important as a moment in my career.
What does the Ballon D’Or mean to you?
You only have to look at its history, it the trophy that recompenses the best player in the world. When we were young and we would play with our friends, we dreamt about it. It is important to have dreams. Aside from that, it is true that I barely dreamt about winning the Premier League so…
Could this be an aim for you?
No, not for the moment. I have still not really done anything in football. To hope to win it, that happens in the Champions League. In two or three years, if things go well, why not talk about it again. But is not an aim.
Christian Gourcuff, your former manager, believed last September, that you were only at 50% of your potential. How far can you go?
I do not know what 50% means… But I will do as I usually do: live day by day and to take what is there. We work, we work and then we see what comes of it.