Speaking in an interview with France Football, Algerian international and Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez discussed how he nearly joined Arsenal, being in contention for the Ballon D’Or, Leicester City blocking his exit and a lack of playing time under Pep Guardiola last season.
On the Ballon D’Or:
It is nice (to be nominated), it proves that I am in the process of coming back, little by little. Over the last two years, they (Sadio Mané & Mo Salah) have stolen a march on me, because I was still at Leicester. We did not have the team to play for the top positions like they did. Last season, when I didn’t play a lot, I was convinced that I was going to have a strong AFCON. I know myself, when I play matches consistently, I can score a lot of goals, provide assists and have everything at its best. In Egypt, I got my revenge. Before the competition, I would not stop repeating this to my friends.
Did this lack of matches make you feel fragile?
At the end of the season, I spent several matches on the bench. Mentally, it was very difficult to live with. But in training I put everything into it because I still had this aim with Algeria. I said to myself: ‘Go for it, at one moment Pep (Guardiola) will need you.’
After winning the Premier League Player of the Year in 2016, a lot of people said that you were a one-season wonder:
That made me laugh. My career had just begun. I had only had one year in the Premier League and then I have a crazy year. How could you say that I had the season of my life when I was just making my beginnings at the highest level. Aside from that, people judge harshly. I had a good Champions’ League campaign, going until the quarter-finals. I was not brilliant, but we should not lie either, we didn’t have the team to set the world alight.
Where did the frustration come from about being in this team?
After the year of the title, had I left for a top team, it would not have been the same story. For me, it is clear that I have lost two years at the highest level. I lost two years! Because instead of arriving at City at the age of 27, I would have maybe been 24 or 25.
Why didn’t you leave?
Leicester blocked me. They said to me: ‘You shall not leave! You shall not leave!’ My agent had spoken with Wenger who really wanted me, it was nearly done with Arsenal in the summer of 2016.
What were your experiences of the two years at Leicester after winning the title?
I was truly frustrated. It is not easy to go from being the best player in the Premier League to being a part of a team that is fighting to stave off relegation. It is not the same job. Everyone is waiting to criticise you, everyone jumps on your back. It was not at all the same team. N’Golo Kanté left for Chelsea. We were involved in the Champions’ League, playing every three days, we were not prepared for that.