“Riyad Mahrez… well, just how good is he?”
It’s a question that, in two decades, won’t be any easier to answer than it is now; if anything would change at all by the time your kids are having this debate someday, it would be the substitution of ‘was’ for ‘is’.
About Mahrez being a supremely gifted footballer there is absolutely no doubt. In a sport that is getting increasingly mechanical, stifling the tendency to indulge in extemporaneous stuff, Mahrez is as exciting a showman as you’d get to see anywhere in football; in the Premier League, certainly, he is in a class of his own.
That class has been evident ever since his time at Leicester, the club he joined from French outfit Le Havre in 2014 without any fanfare. By the time Mahrez was leaving the East Midlands, on a £60m transfer to Manchester City, it was one of that summer’s headline moves. The fee was the most City had ever paid for a footballer, the most any club had ever paid for an African footballer.
That valuation and the accompanying hype had been fully earned during the 2015/16 season, when Mahrez’s brilliance — together with similarly excellent displays from Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante — inspired Leicester to the most unlikely Premier League triumph in living memory.
That step-up has helped Mahrez add to his tally of Premier League trophies, bagging four more in his five years at City. And Mahrez hasn’t just hitched a ride on Pep Guardiola’s relentless winning machine. He has contributed 80 goals/assists to the cause, besides fine performances in domestic cup competitions (he’s won quite a few of those, too) and some memorable Uefa Champions League nights.
“He’s an exceptional player, big stages [sic] player, [with] the mentality to score a goal,” Guardiola described Mahrez, after the the forward scored a remarkable first-half hat-trick against Sheffield United last month to take City within a game of what could be the Algeria international’s second FA Cup winners’ medal.
It’s a description that, coupled with Mahrez’s ball-playing genius and all that he’s won, paints the picture of a player fans should only speak of in reverent tones long after he retires.
When that time comes, though, would we be talking about Mahrez as we really should?
Would he, in other words, be remembered as what his five Premier League titles (the most of any African) and other successes suggest he ought to be, namely, the greatest-ever from his home continent to grace English football?
By certain metrics, he is, indeed, primus inter pares.
Mahrez now has as many Premier League titles as Didier Drogba and Mohamed Salah combined, his latest arriving only last weekend, and has won more with City than Yaya Toure ever did.
‘GOAT things’ right there, you said?
See, Mahrez’s accomplishments — sterling as they are in themselves — don’t quite reflect as gloriously on him as those of the others mentioned who, when you think of, you imagine a halo around their heads. And that difference is largely down to the prominence they’ve enjoyed in their respective teams.
Drogba was arguably the biggest presence in the Chelsea sides of his day, even in a dressing room full of strong characters, regardless of who the manager was. Toure, at City, led the revolution that transformed the club from being barely relevant in the scheme of things to becoming the dominant force they now are. Salah, under Jurgen Klopp, is Liverpool’s greatest goalscorer of the modern era.
Guardiola’s City, however, affords little room for that kind of individual glow. It’s a system in which each player is only as important as the other. And with all the ruthless chopping and changing from game to game — of which Guardiola admits Mahrez has not been a particularly enthused victim — that room gets even smaller.
Unless, in fact, you are one of the handful of offensive players in this City team that Pep regards as indispensable (read Kevin De Bruyne or Erling Haaland) and/or a freakish striker capable of a 50-goal season (that narrows the list down further, no?), it’s hard to stand out enough to be showered with personal plaudits.
That explains, at least in part, the relative lack of individual laurels for City’s players, which midfielder Bernardo Silva complained about a couple of years back, despite all that the Cityzens have had to celebrate as a collective during Guardiola’s tenure. And it certainly explains why Mahrez especially has received little official recognition of what he’s done at the Eastlands.
His only African Footballer of the Year prize was awarded for 2016, the year of his stunning, stellar season with Leicester. Since that high, Mahrez has made the podium just once, in 2019, but even that was more for propelling Algeria to triumph at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) than for anything achieved in City blue.
He may well return to the podium when next the award is handed out, if City are able to complete the Treble they’re already one-third of the way through; should that quest prove successful, Mahrez would become the first African in English football to land that rare hat-trick of silverware.
One suspects, though, that not even such a truly unique feat would elevate Mahrez beyond the Drogbas, Toures and Salahs.
It’s really no fault of his that the system which has brought Mahrez so much success is also the reason the 32-year-old won’t be deemed as having lit up the Premier League as brightly as he otherwise might have, a tradeoff that definitely leaves his legacy somewhat shortchanged.
And that, really, takes nothing away from the delightfully talented player Mahrez is.
Enn Y. Frimpong — Ink & Kicks