“They said I was too skinny, everyone will push you off the ball. I had a good technique but physically I wasn’t too strong. And I wasn’t fast. But I always worked hard.”
Riyad Mahrez’s battle to conquer his critics culminated in victory through a Premier League winners medal last May. The death of his father, when Mahrez was just fifteen, may have eradicated any possibility of a future career gracing football pitches from the Bernabeu to the Allianz Arena for the vast majority of young teenagers with a hopeful dream. However, Ahmed Mahrez’s son was a different breed to the everyday footballer.
Paul Doyle’s interview with the Algerian in the Guardian last year solidified that belief in my mind. Ahmed Mahrez’s death was not the only stumbling block in Riyad’s path to becoming the Premier League’s greatest player of last season. A light physique had locked away a young wide man’s incredulous ability, but it did not escape Mohamed Coulibaly, technical director of Mahrez’s first club, AAS Sarcelles.
“He was very frail. But he never gave up. You can see on the pitch that he never hides. From very early on he learned to take responsibilities. He has something more than technique, he has the guts and character that make great players.”
Mahrez’s shackles were soon cast off. Quimper was the next destination, with Le Havre following quickly after. Speed had quickly become one of the finest weapons in his arsenal, but physically Mahrez was far from imposing. Such a quiet and improbable star as he was, Leicester City’s scout Steve Walsh had initially travelled to France to watch Ryan Mendes, but it was Mahrez who had stolen the show that evening.
Mahrez may have captured Walsh’s attention, but the Foxes scout was just another member of the crowd to him. In fact, FourFourTwo’s interview with the 25-year-old revealed that the player had not been aware that Leicester not only had a rugby club but a football team too in the weeks building up to the transfer. “I didn’t know Leicester. In France we didn’t really [know them] because they were in the Championship.”
Fortunately, Mahrez’s ignorance of Leicester City Football Club’s existence did not extinguish Nigel Pearson’s interest in his services following discussions with Walsh. 2014 had just begun when Mahrez was added to Leicester’s plethora of attacking players in January 2014 as they looked to finally escape England’s second division for the riches of the Premier League. As we all now know, Leicester returned to the top flight after a ten-year absence as champions.
There is certainly something present about Mahrez that suggests the spark within. One that alongside Jamie Vardy, essentially led Claudio Ranieri’s outfit to the Premier League title. When viewing Mahrez on the pitch, he brings an air of confidence, oozes class and always encourages positivity in an environment where no individual is more important than the team-mate he stands next to.
It is this extraordinary teamwork mentality that Mahrez thrives in. He did not need to force himself upon a pedestal through exaggerated actions on the pitch to prove his brilliance at Le Havre, nor is it necessary at Leicester. Instead, what is intrinsic to Mahrez’s play is the simple beauty of his style.
There are no needless tricks in pressurised situations. An attack spearheaded by Riyad Mahrez is one accompanied with a creative purpose. This is evidently exemplified by a pure and unteachable quality found in Mahrez’s play of converting a mundane and uninspiring move into one packed with energy, flair and sheer brilliance.
This particular quality is what sets Mahrez aside from Wolfsburg’s Julian Draxler. Yes, the German has shown flickers of his yet to be realised potential in the Bundesliga and during this summer’s European Championships, but what would concern me about Draxler is his seeming inability to replicate these little flourishes of his eye-catching inventiveness on the wing in the long-term.
Injuries have not been the prime factor as to why the 22-year-old is not a world star yet as some suggest; it is his inconsistency which has hampered his progress.
Clearly, Draxler is impatient to enjoy a similar success story as Mahrez. Bild published an interview this morning in which he outlined his desire to depart the Bundesliga for an ‘international top club’. Sky have suggested that both Arsenal and Juventus have held talks, but if Arsene Wenger has learned to develop a keen eye in the transfer market over the last twenty years, he should know that Draxler is a risky and far more expensive option than Mahrez would be.
That’s not to mention that Mahrez not only has proved himself in the Premier League but has excelled in a position which Arsenal desperately lack truly creative and effective options. The Leicester man is far and beyond better value for money in comparison with Draxler.
It is obvious that Mahrez is an individual who will fit Arsenal’s ethos like a jigsaw piece into an ever expanding puzzle. The Algerian has verified in the blue of Leicester City that he is a player willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the team, but is so exceedingly talented that Mahrez’s quality shines through on a regular basis, no matter the opponent.
Express say that Draxler will not arrive at the Emirates for a reasonable sum; far from it in truth. £52m is the valuation that has been placed upon his head, and I cannot fathom Wolfsburg’s reasoning if that is the proposed fee. Considering that Mahrez’s ability far outweighs Draxler’s, Leicester’s reported £35m valuation indicates that Arsenal would engage in daylight robbery should they favour a move for the Premier League’s player of the year.
Regardless of where he plies his trade next season, there appears to be no stagnation to Riyad Mahrez’s meteoric rise. Arsenal fans will hope, perhaps in vain, that Arsene Wenger will make the right decision.
Callum Connolly, Pundit Arena.