The story of a player being denied a move to a bigger team is not a new one, but as Leicester are now discovering, the fallout can be all too real.
When news broke on Tuesday that Manchester City had either lodged a bid for Riyad Mahrez, or fully intended to do so, it came as a surprise. Granted, Man City’s previous pursuit of Alexis Sanchez had come to nothing but at least they had been tracking him for months, that at at least made some degree of sense. But when that deal didn’t go through, it looked as though Pep Guardiola would just have to plod on with the vast array of attacking talent available to him.
Imagine, then, the surprise that Leicester must have felt when the Premier League champions-in-waiting came storming in with offer after offer, seemingly determined to take the Foxes’ star player with no prior warning before the last 48 hours or so of the January transfer window.
Leicester, mindful of the fact that they had little or no time to replace the Algerian were he to be allowed to depart the club, initially resisted any form of deal before eventually relenting and agreeing to sell the 2016 PFA Player of the Year if Man City came back with a package worth £95m (subsequently lowered to £80 when Patrick Roberts was taken out of the equation).
In the midst off all of this drama, Mahrez had suddenly decided that he no longer wanted to be a Leicester player and duly handed in a transfer request, just as he did last summer. He also took it upon himself to skip training on Wednesday (and has not been back since), so adamant was he that he wanted to play for Guardiola and win his second Premier League title in three years at the end of this season.
And so to the take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum that Leicester offered Man City. Having barged in and disrupted the Foxes’ camp and probably threw the remainder of their season into chaos, the league leaders were set to emerge with a new player. And yet it was at this point that the same moral quandary befell them that had previously sen them pull out of the Sanchez deal. Clubs like Man City tend to speak the language of money and are quite prepared to throw it around when they need to, and yet they balked at Leicester’s demands as if they were being unreasonable.
They ended up walking away from the table on deadline day, passing through the King Power like a hurricane and leaving Leicester and Mahrez to deal with the fallout, with the relationship between player and club in tatters.
Man City had decided, having spend almost £60m on a French U21 international centre-back, had decided that a Premier League winner and Ballon d’Or nominee was not worth £20m more than that.
The fact that Man City wanted Mahrez should not grate too much – after all, he is one of the best players in the Premier League, it stands to reason that he should be a man in demand from the upper echelons of the division. However, it’s plainly obvious that neither City nor Guardiola actually needed him. With Leroy Sane injured until March, Mahrez would effectively have been signed as cover for the German. A gilded stopgap, if you will.
Could Guardiola really not have been expected to carry on with David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Brahim Diaz the soon-to-return Gabriel Jesus and, if a change of formation was required, Phil Foden, Yaya Toure and Ilkay Gundogan. Rather than offer Patrick Roberts to Leicester, couldn’t they just have recalled him from his loan spell at Celtic and used him, as was surely the long-term intention when they paid Fulham £12m for his services in 2015?
Guardiola made his name off the back of bringing through promising youth products at Barcelona, prospects who would go on to conquer Europe, and yet in the past month he has shown signs of being drawn into the money-based instant gratification-hungry world of Premier League capitalism. Had the Mahrez deal gone through, Guardiola would have spent £500m in his time at the Etihad. Granted the squad was in serious need of redevelopment and investment and while he has great success with the likes of Sane and Gabriel Jesus for fees that look relatively modest in today’s market, the last-minute hunt for Mahrez just for the sake of it was crass and needless, spending just for the sake of it.
It’s crossing the line between obscene and outright vulgar.
And so Man City move on. They will still win the Premier League this year, will be favourites to win the FA and Carabao cups and stand a good chance of winning the Champions League. All of this would have been true without or without Mahrez so this whole ordeal has had a negligible impact on their season, bar the slight inconvenience of having an important player out of action for a few weeks.
But for Leicester, as they now attempt to handle Mahrez’s continued absence from training, they now have to deal with the aftermath of daring to command a player to commit to the long-term contract he signed 18 months ago.