Every week at The Center Circle, we are highlighting a different player in a feature we call “On the Spot”. We’ll take a look at superstars, underrated gems, aging veterans, and young unknowns who should be known. We’ll peruse their club and international careers, taking note of their teams, statistics, and highlight reels. We’ll illuminate their strengths and weaknesses and comment on their personalities and reputations. It will be some fun. If there is anyone you want to see “On the Spot”, feel free to comment below.
This season, Leicester City has orchestrated one of the most surprising runs of Premier League history. After sitting dead last in the table last year at Christmas Day, the Foxes now sit in first place with a two-point lead on Arsenal. Behind this miraculous rise has been the play of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. While Vardy has drawn the headlines for scoring goals, Mahrez has now become one of the most sought after players in Europe for his creative play on the wing.
Despite representing Algeria at the international level, Riyad Mahrez was actually born in France back in 1991. This is where his professional playing career would start to take shape. The young winger was unable to draw attention from top division teams early on in his career and eventually found a home in France’s fourth division with Quimper FC.
Mahrez would spend just a single season with Quimper making 27 appearances and scoring just a single goal. Despite his lack of scoring production, the 19-year-old earned himself a move to second division Le Havre. Mahrez would spend the 2010/11 season playing for Le Havre’s storied academy that has produced the likes of Paul Pogba, Lassana Diarra and Charles N’Zogbia.
It wasn’t until his second season that the winger would get a chance with the first team in Ligue 2. The 2011/12 campaign saw him make just eight senior appearances, including a start in the team’s season finale against Angers. The next season, Mahrez finally earned a more consistent place in Le Havre’s first team. Between the French Cup and league play, the 22-year-old made a career-high 31 appearances (20 of those as a starter), while also registering a career-high with four goals.
Halfway through the 2013/14 season, Mahrez’s time at Le Havre came to an end. In his last season with the French club, Mahrez would appear 20 times while improving on last season’s goal tally (6) and also recording a career-high in assists (5). His impressive play attracted the attention of Leicester City in England who was playing in the second division.
Mahrez’s first goal for the club was a vital equalizer against Nottingham Forest in just his fifth appearance. After starting his English career on the bench, the former Le Havre winger would eventually work his way into Nigel Pearson’s starting lineup. At the conclusion of his half season with the Foxes, Mahrez had made 12 starts for his new club while chipping in three goals and four assists.
Leicester’s impressive record after Mahrez’s arrival (13-5-1) helped push them to the top of the League Championship, they finished nine points ahead of Burnley, and earned them automatic promotion to the Premier League. It was a difficult introduction to the Premier League for Mahrez and the Foxes as they struggled to just three wins from their first 19 fixtures. During the first half of the season, the 23-year-old winger scored just twice and recorded only two assists.
The second half of the season didn’t see a significant rise in Mahrez’s statistical production, but the Algerian international played a key role in the squad’s survival race. Nigel Pearson’s squad would win seven of their final nine league matches including a 2-0 win over Southampton where Mahrez scored both goals. This unbelievable run to finish the season pushed Leicester all the way to 14th in the table and ensured that they would be in the top flight for at least one more season.
This year, Mahrez and the Foxes have amazed fans around the globe as they’ve shot up all the way to the top of the table. The 24-year-old has quickly established himself as one of the most dangerous wingers in Europe as his partnership with Jamie Vardy has produced 28 goals. To put that into perspective, this is more goals than all but two Premier League clubs have scored this season. In his last three games, Mahrez has found the back of the net six times including a hat trick against Swansea City.
Even though he was born in France, Riyad Mahrez’s father was an Algerian native. This meant that the winger was able to switch his international allegiances and join the Algerian national team for competitions. His play with Leicester during the 2013/14 campaign impressed the Algerian coaching staff and he made his international debut in the nation’s buildup to the World Cup against Armenia.
Mahrez would earn himself a place on Algeria’s final roster for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and in the process would become the first Leicester City player to play in the tournament since Muzzy Izzet in 2002. He would start the opening match of the tournament against Belgium, but would not appear in the three remaining games.
Style of Play
This season in particular, Premier League fans have been able to truly witness the creativity and flair that Riyad Mahrez brings to the pitch. In the match against Chelsea, the 24-year-old controlled the ball on the edge of the area, and shimmied his way past Cesar Azpilicueta before curling a beautiful effort into the side netting. On the wings, this flair gives Mahrez the ability to create space for himself in order to send in crosses or to charge into the penalty area. This exciting style of play is one of the main reasons that the winger has quickly become one of the most wanted men in Europe with clubs like Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur reportedly offering upwards of £30 million for his signature.