Leicester City were 5000-1 to win the Premier League in August, but what were the odds for Riyad Mahrez being named PFA Player of the Year before the first ball was kicked? A lucky punter has yet to come forward to claim his riches.
The Algerian international had played just 71 minutes in the 2-1 defeat to Belgium at the World Cup in Brazil. He scored four goals and provided three assists to help Leicester stay up in 2014/15, his first full season after his €450,000 move to England from Ligue 2 club Le Havre. But there was very little to suggest the explosive impact the 25-year-old would have in the current campaign.
Mahrez is a Player of the Year like no other since the formation of the Premier League: he’s the cheapest ever (in transfer fee terms), the first African, the first from a team considered non-elite (at the beginning of the season) and, perhaps most importantly, the first “overnight” sensation, coming out of nowhere to beat some of the biggest names in world football.
Seventeen goals and ten assists is a phenomenal return from the winger, especially if you consider that Claudio Ranieri’s unashamedly counter-attacking side have enjoyed less of the ball than almost every team in the Premier League. “Mahrez is the light - when he’s on, the whole stadium shines,” Ranieri said after the Foxes’ 4-0 win over Swansea last weekend. And he’s right: the Paris-born attacking midfielder has made everybody on his team look better.
Football statistician Mathijs Steneker has calculated that no other Premier League player has had such a positive effect on his side’s goal difference per game than Mahrez. With him, Leicester averaged a goal difference of over 2 per game, without him, just over minus 1 (only players who played at least 400 minutes and missed at least 400 minutes were included, opposition teams not included). On top of all those numbers, he’s also provided flashes of brilliance that cannot be measured statistically: tricks, turns and dribbles that get the pulse racing.
Mahrez’s stellar form this season has embarrassed many more prominent, expensive colleagues such as Eden Hazard (Chelsea, two goals, four assists), Memphis Depay (Manchester United, two goals, one assist) or Raheem Sterling (Manchester City, six goals, two assists). He also represents a triumph of scouting.
The Algerian grew up in the suburb of Sarcelles and didn’t immediately scream “Premier League success” when Leicester scouts started watching him in July 2012. “His decision making wasn’t great and defensively he wasn’t the best,” said Steve Walsh, the Head of Recruitment, to the Daily Mail. But the club kept tabs on him and constructed their own statistical model to evaluate his performances in Ligue 2 and compare them to other targets in other leagues such as Bundesliga 2.
Leicester made their move in January 2014, half-way into their bid for promotion from the Championship. To get Mahrez into the right frame of mind for English fooball, coach Nigel Pearson would never blow for a foul on him in training. Mahrez complained at first but after a while he learned that he had to release the ball quicker, or accelerate past his man to make sure he wasn’t caught.
Arsène Wenger, who used to pride himself on finding the best French players before anyone else has since hired one of Leicester’s technical scouts, Ben Wrigglesworth, in recognition of the fantastic job the club have done. Mahrez hasn’t been their only success: midfield enforcer N’Golo Kanté, signed for €8m from Ligue 1 side Caen last summer, is easily worth five times as much now.
Everyone in the Premier League talks about Moneyball, the strategy of unearthing players underrated by the market - named after Michael Lewis’s seminal book on baseball innovator Billy Beane - but very few get it as right as the club from the Midlands have done over the last couple of years.
One word of caution though. Replicating this sort of form will be more difficult for Mahrez next season, when participation in the Champions League will increase his work-load and take a toll on him mentally. Opposition teams will continually analyse his movements more carefully to come up with effective counter-measures. There’s no doubt that Mahrez has been THE player in England this season, but continuing to be the best player is much, much harder. Just ask last year’s winner Eden Hazard, or Robin van Persie (now at Fenerbahce). The Dutchman had two sensational seasons in 2011/12 and 2012/13 but never came close again.