As Claudio Ranieri’s long wait for a league title seemingly comes to an end, effectively wiping clean the one lingering blemish on an otherwise illustrious and nomadic career with some of Europe’s biggest clubs and finally establishing the one they used to call ‘The Tinkerman’ amongst the elite pedigree of European coaches; it was instead his carefully crafted and impeccably spirited Leicester team that took the plaudits at this season’s annual Premier League PFA awards.
At a ceremony almost dominated by the unexpected league leaders, it was Leicester City forward Riyad Mahrez who was crowned the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year.
The Algerian has scored an incredible 17 goals with an even more impressive 11 assists in 34 league games so far, propelling Leicester to the brink of arguably one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time.
And when one remembers this award was voted for by Mahrez’s fellow professionals, it is clear that fans and players alike can agree that during the 2015/16 season, there has simply been no stopping the mercurial and fleet footed winger, who could also be considered as the Premier League’s best ever buy at a cost of just £400,000.
High praise indeed, but how has the Algerian been able to transform himself from a young and gifted but highly inconsistent rough gem in the doldrums of France’s second division, to potentially the crown jewel of the Premier League’s greatest ever sporting accomplishment?
Riyad Mahrez has been a sensation this season, growing in confidence and competence, and with his almost telepathic understanding with similarly coveted late bloomer Jamie Vardy, the Leicester City frontline has been a whirlwind of attacking intent and breathless intensity.
While Vardy adds the pace, directness and an incomparable desire to pressurise league defences, Mahrez has been left to sprinkle the final touches of quality on this otherwise awesome league campaign. His virtuoso performances have added the je ne sais quoi to Leicester’s title challenge.
But how has the Algerian been able to improve so dramatically under the tutelage of Ranieri? Is it the guidance and protection of the wily, experienced and left-field Italian? Is it the feel good factor of Leicester’s title charge coursing through his veins, invigorating him with a confidence that wasn’t there before? Or has he simply blossomed in a country and a playing style that compliments his own, under the clamour of the most entertaining domestic league in the world?
The truth is, arguably it could be all of these things in equal measure. The Algerian is enjoying an unprecedented opportunity to play in a team with nothing to lose and no expectancy at their feet to lift a trophy that no-one ever thought they would win.
So perhaps it is understandable that a player who always held promise has been able to freely tap into his potential in a more comfortable environment than with other title winning teams. Leicester City are riding a wave of momentum that has pushed them to the brink of history, and Mahrez has thrived on it.
But on the pitch at least, there is still one fundamental reason why Mahrez has taken the Premier League by storm this season, and adapted so well to lead the Leicester frontline.
To understand his sumptuous rise to the top, and examine what his future may hold when the dust settles on whatever Leicester’s fate will be, one must first delve deeper into his past, to examine how his burgeoning career in the French lower leagues perfectly prepared him for what was to come.
Mahrez was born in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, and the Algerian’s first club was AAS Sarcelles, who play in the local Ligue de Paris. But even when he was young, Mahrez’s journey was anything but easy, losing his father to a heart attack at the age of 15.
It is his determination to overcome these early obstacles, alongside his latent quality, that has taken him across France to now sit 8 points clear at the top of the Premier League.
Hayel Mbemba, a former team-mate at Sarcelles, has spoken of the Algerian’s meteoric rise saying:
“Riyad was a man who played on Monday, Tuesday, all the day everyday he played football. When he finished playing with the team he would then go around the gymnasiums of Sarcelles, that was the mentality of Riyad. Football and sport in general in Sarcelles is the way to get out from the street, to not go down another path that will not be good. Maybe soon, the next few months, we will build a new stadium and name if it after Riyad, I hope we can do that. He is an example, an inspiration for the young people.”
In 2009, Mahrez moved to non-league side Quimper, but not without an element of risk. The club initially couldn’t offer the 18-year-old a contract due to financial difficulties, but in keeping with his traumatic journey to the top, the club decided to take a chance on the slight and talented winger. The president of Quimper told Riyad of his decision not to offer the Algerian a contract, and Christoph Marchand, a local journalist who covers Quimper, said:
“Riyad was so disappointed, he called his mum almost burning in tears. The president saw his desperation and 24 hours later he had signed a contract. Maybe if Riyad didn’t have this reaction, he wouldn’t have got the contract. Six years ago he was nothing. He was in the seventh division in France, playing in front of 20 people. But now he has a kind of genius.”
When Mahrez joined, Quimper were in the seventh tier of French football, and that was after they’d won three promotions. While there the little Parisian spent his first six months in their B team, as he slowly but steadily ascended through the ranks.
Living with him at the time was Mathias Pogba, brother of Paul, and his former team-mate has spoken of life with the Algerian:
“With the ball at his feet he’s unstoppable, but I always told him ‘you need to get bigger because you are too skinny’. He has not put on one kilo since then so he obviously hasn’t listened. No player is skinny like him nowadays, but he’s getting more clever so he doesn’t need to use his body. A gem in the rough.”
A gem in the rough – a consistent theme and quote attached to the Algerian, but fast forward to the present day and this undoubted potential is finally showing through as the quality that has earned him the title as England’s PFA Player of the Year.
It is clear he is no longer a rough gem, but more of a crown jewel as he terrorises Premier League defences and lets his undoubted potential shine through, but his development in France was crucial nonetheless to this upturn in fortunes.
As the talented little winger continued to impress at Quimper, his performances reportedly attracted interest from Paris St Germain and Marseille.
However, instead of moving to the future Ligue 1 champions elect or to Marseille in the south of France, the Algerian instead joined Le Havre on the Normandy coast, a club renowned for its development and tutelage of young players, including the likes of Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet.
Riyad joined the Ligue 2 club in 2010 at the age of 19, and stayed there until his unheralded switch to Leicester City in 2014, for a now laughable sum of just £400,000.
However, his first few months on the Normandy coast were difficult, and a relatively big jump in quality for a player well versed in the nuances of non-league football.
Coach Erick Mombaerts worked hard with the Algerian’s tactical awareness, and it is perhaps here where the benefits of French football first truly benefited the winger, preparing him for his breakthrough into the most intense and physical league on the planet.
His first taste of the subtle tactical disciplines he would learn to not only adapt to, but relish, is an improved work rate that has seen the Algerian able to fit so completely into the Leicester City side this season – a squad based on resolute team spirit and maximum effort in every game.
His first few months with Le Havre were littered with substitute appearances, as any reluctance to track back and follow instructions was rewarded with an early bath, but this steep learning curve is partly what has allowed Mahrez to adapt so completely to the Premier League he now shines in.
And it isn’t just his work rate that improved. Florian Floqe, a member of the Barbarians, Le Havre’s official supporter’s club says:
“Riyad had always the same move, dribbling past a few players on the right wing, cutting inside and shooting. It might be working in England now, but that sort of Arjen Robben style doesn’t work in Ligue 2. I wrote in my blog at the time that Riyad will become a great player and people laughed at me. A very skilled player but he didn’t use his talent efficiently. He had potential but only potential.”
Indeed, it is exactly this kind of tactical tutelage and constructive criticism that Mahrez received in the French leagues that should truly be recognized for igniting his rapid growth and improvement, allowing him to mature into the player he is today, taking his game to the next level.
A player of Mahrez’s mould can often be in danger of developing a predictable approach to their gameplay, a repetitive arsenal of ideas and tricks, and a prerequisite to try the same style of play over and over again. After all, often when a player possesses superior technical ability but under the caveat of having a limited physical presence, it can be all too easy for opposing defences to isolate a predictable and weak player.
Indeed, even the very best have honed some very particular routines, such as Dutch winger Arjen Robben’s familiar motion to cut inside from the right flank.
Even Lionel Messi is renowned for being completely left footed, with little or no flexibility in his playing stance – but cases such as these are extremely rare at the very top level of professional football, and in a league as unforgiving as the Premier League, the truly great must have a wider repertoire if they are to taste success.
While the player himself has recently spoken of the extra motivation he receives from the birth of his first child, there is no question that French football, and indeed the coaching he received, has allowed the Parisian to hone his craft and familiarise himself with the physical aspect of professional football, without destroying his natural style of play and becoming what the British would delight in calling ‘a one trick pony’. That is, a repetitive and therefore often unsuccessful flair player.
Life in the Premier League could have been a disaster for the Algerian with his slight physique, but experience of the French leagues, with their athletic and combative style in keeping with the English game, has allowed a player with all the necessary technical qualities to thrive, to learn to survive and adapt to the physical exertions that often blight the careers of the most talented.
He has been able to absorb the tuition of his Italian mentor, to mould his talent and allow his technical abilities to shine whilst complimenting a more rigid winning mentality and work ethic that he has inherited; something crucial for the success he has now been able to enjoy.
Certainly, Mathias Pogba is convinced the little Parisian can go all the way and continue his sumptuous rise to the top:
“Can he be as good as Paul? I think he can, if he keeps going in this way he can be a top, top, top, top player if he keeps doing what he’s doing….and puts some weight on. Riyad, put some weight on, just a little bit.”
What the future holds for Riyad Mahrez is unclear amid links to moves away to PSG and Barcelona in the summer, but for now he can enjoy the kind of success and fortune he once dreamed off as he ascended through those dark days of non-league football. But what is clear, is that Leicester have been able to uncover a truly gifted individual, and what’s more, have given him the opportunity to flourish on the biggest stage of all.
While the Premier League has taken the Algerian to another level on the playing field, it should not be forgotten where he came from, and the lessons he learned on his journey to the top. For that reason, French football will always have a poignant place in the story of Riyad Mahrez’s success.
Jeffrey Gamby Boulger
Note: A selection of quotes in this piece originate from this excellent BBC article.