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Dublin: 9°C Friday 23 October 2020

A rather unlikely figure is the best player in the Premier League right now

Riyad Mahrez has spent the first few weeks of the season terrorising defences and single-handedly beat Aston Villa in Sunday’s thriller.

Image: Paul Harding/PA Wire/Press Association Images

RIYAD MAHREZ DIDN’T get on the score-sheet on Sunday but his contribution to Leicester’s remarkable turnaround against Aston Villa was immense.

And what made the Algerian international’s performance all the more impressive was the fact that there’s now an expectation given how well he’s started the season.

With four goals in the Foxes’ first five games, the 24-year-old has given plenty of neutrals a reason to sit up and take notice and against Villa, he dramatically changed the game and delivered when the pressure was on.

For much of Sunday’s game, he was the constant outlet for Leicester – usually picking the ball up wide on the right but sometimes drifting inside and looking to slip a through-ball for Jamie Vardy or Shinji Okazaki. There was also that magnificent moment in the first-half when an impudent ‘Cruyff turn’ on the edge of the Villa area left Ashley Westwood, Leandro Bacuna and Micah Richards on their backsides.

After the break, Claudio Ranieri made a switch with Mahrez taking up a central role and he created absolute pandemonium with his directness and ability to beat players. Carlos Sanchez, in particular, received a pretty acute case of twisted blood as Mahrez twisted, turned and thrilled in equal measure.

Mahrez had already whipped in the corner for Ritchie de Laet to head home Leicester’s first goal but it was his role in Vardy’s equaliser that was magnificent. Picking up a simple pass close to the half-way line, Mahrez burned past Jordan Ayew after another ‘Cruyff turn’ (he’s a fan of them) and offloaded to the overlapping Danny Drinkwater just as Jack Grealish came to challenge. The acceleration and purpose made the goal and from there, Mahrez was simply unstoppable.


He could’ve had a goal of his own soon after when he cut inside Jordan Amavi with a scarily quick drop of the shoulder in the right channel. Looking to bend the strike around Guzan to the far corner, the effort was just a little too close to the goalkeeper.

But late on, he conjured one, final moment that ensured Leicester a sparkling comeback and all three points. Dropping deep into the pocket, Mahrez was left in acres of space as Villa retreated to the edge of their own area, desperately trying to defend in numbers. Still, the attacker had the awareness and intelligence to weigh up the situation, knowing a delicate ball over the top could cause panic. He dropped a perfectly-weighted pass in between Richards and Alan Hutton and there was Nathan Dyer to get a touch just before being clattered by Guzan and the ball rolled over the line.

Before the game, Marc Albrighton gave his take on Mahrez and what he brings to the side. And it’s hard to argue with his analysis.

He is one of those players you need in a successful team. He is a player who can create something out of nothing. When chances are few and far between he can pop up with a moment of magic, like he did against Tottenham. He can conjure up a moment of brilliance.”

Perhaps what makes Mahrez so special is that he goes against much of what the Premier League offers up now. With an emphasis very much on pragmatism, selecting such a creative presence who is allowed such freedom is something of a rarity. Mahrez is a master of beating players one-on-one and in an environment where space is usually made through a mistake, a pass or an overlap rather than individual magic, it’s a real treat to watch.

With the return of formations like the diamond or 4-3-3, teams seems disinterested in properly stretching defences and getting wide players isolated with full-backs so Leicester’s 4-4-2 (or variation on it with Mahrez and Albrighton named on either flank) is a throw-back and maybe one reason why their start has been so good – the traditional elements of their system goes against what many teams are facing week-in, week-out.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Leicester City v Tottenham Hotspur - King Power Stadium Mahrez celebrates after scoring a late equaliser against Tottenham. Source: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

And also, with so many teams using full-backs as a way of finding attacking territory and creating, it’s a pretty neat trick to have a winger of Mahrez’s ability ready to exploit the space they’ll surrender. Amavi is Villa’s big attacking outlet down their left and loves to bomb forward so Tim Sherwood really should’ve been more prepared for Mahrez finding so much space, as the double-pivot of Sanchez and Westwood seemed completely ill-prepared for having to step up and fill in.

The biggest worry for Leicester currently is what happens when Mahrez isn’t there. Against Bournemouth, he was forced off at half-time because of injury and the Foxes were headed for defeat before Vardy managed an 86th-minute penalty to ensure a 1-1 draw.

Still, that will be of little concern to Ranieri right now. His team remain unbeaten and the’re in second place in the league on merit. They’ve played some excellent football and have began the season with energy and brightness, offering up a style that deserves praise. It goes against the grain and shows that by not deviating far from the basics, it’s hard to go wrong.

Of course, the defeats will come and that’s something Leicester need to be prepared for. But right now, they and Mahrez are enjoying themselves.

And we’re enjoying watching.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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