Words by Maher Mezahi
In preparation for the 2011 African Youth Championships, the Algerian U-23 national team played an exhibition match against Le Havre, France. Riyad Mahrez was 20 years old at the time, and though he had previously reached out to the Algerian Football Federation for a call-up, Azzedine Ait-Djoudi, who was in charge of Algeria’s U-23s, had thought him a surplus to requirements, and refused to call him up.
The match would finish two-two and Mahrez looked the most accomplished player on the pitch. With 13 goals and 7 assists in the first half of the 2015/16 Premier League season, it is inconceivable to think that, at one point, Mahrez struggled to find a club to pay him to play professional football. Many French ‘centres de formation’ place a premium on physique, and the slender winger failed to cement a place in an academy. Until the age of 17, Mahrez played for his local club Sarcelles FC in the sixth division of French football. “I used to go to Algeria (over the summer), and start the the amateur season in September. No pre-season.”
It wasn’t until he signed for Quimper, the next year, then in France’s fourth division, that Mahrez managed to attract the attention of professional clubs. For most of that first season with Quimper, he led the CFA in scoring from the wing. Even then, RC Lens did not judge him good enough to integrate their reserve team. Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain did offer him a place in their reserve side, but Jean-Marc Nobilo – a notorious name in the medium of French scouting – convinced him to join Le Havre.
At Le Havre, Mahrez began making a name for himself. His narrow frame and silky footwork earned him a curious sobriquet: ‘The Algerian Di Maria’. Though still a very raw player, Di Maria-lite signed his first professional contract at 19, while the majority of his peers had already been playing for a number of years.
Now, Mahrez might very well be the most improved player in world football. At the beginning of the calendar year, the Sarcelles native shuttle-cocked in and out of Nigel Pearson’s first XI, as the Foxes’ former manager left him out frequently due to a lack of defensive awareness.
When Mahrez was included he seemed your run-of-the-mill Premier League player. There was no doubting his flair, but inconsistency tarred every other performance and his lack of defensive discipline did not fly with a precarious Leicester side fighting tooth-and-nail for every precious point.
Several factors may be credited for Mahrez’s seemingly abrupt improvement. Firstly, Mahrez took a much-needed break in the summer and returned a married man with improved English. With no international tournaments in view, the 24-year-old could also focus solely on the Premier League.
It has also been hinted that the arrival of N’Golo Kante in midfield and Claudio Ranieri on the touchline boosted Mahrez’s progression exponentially. Ranieri’s blitzing, counter-attacking approach favoured Mahrez’s pace, and Kante’s indefatigable midfield play freed the No.26 of the defensive duties he was obligated to heed under Pearson.
The clinical play of Jamie Vardy also inflated Mahrez’s statistics as the neo-England international has played with pinpoint efficiency in front of goal. The two forged a symbiotic partnership and are arguably the Premier League’s most potent one-two punch. Mahrez has shown increased maturity by shouldering spot-kick duties, and increased familiarity with the playing style of his teammates. A third of his goals have originated from Mahrez attacking a Marc Albrighton diagonal.
Though he was, perhaps, unfairly deprived of two PFA Player of the Month awards, Mahrez’s efforts were recently recompensed when he was awarded the 2015 Algerian Ballon D’Or. At the ceremony, he was hounded with inquiries of a future transfer, and though he remained coy on any future endeavours, an implication of a near departure was detected. If Leicester fail to lock-in a Champions League spot, there will be no paucity of clubs looking to recruit the new Algerian superstar.
Highlight of the Year: Crucifying Cezar Azpilicueta
After providing an assist to Vardy to put Leicester ahead against Chelsea on Monday Night Football, Mahrez scored one of the goals of the season. He killed a long diagonal from Marc Albrighton before turning out, in, and back out against Azpilicueta and firing a winning goal past Thibault Courtois.