Football: Leicester need Riyad Mahrez to fire

Leicester's Riyad Mahrez shielding the ball from Middlesbrough's Fabio Da Silva during a Premier League game last month. The Algerian has not yet adjusted fully to the new system of play, as the team struggle to stay clear of the relegation zone.
Leicester's Riyad Mahrez shielding the ball from Middlesbrough's Fabio Da Silva during a Premier League game last month. The Algerian has not yet adjusted fully to the new system of play, as the team struggle to stay clear of the relegation zone.PHOTO: REUTERS

Output has shrunk although it is partly due to a different supporting cast

LONDON • It was meant more as a challenge, a kick up the backside, than as a form of public criticism.

And we will know soon enough whether Claudio Ranieri's rebuke of Riyad Mahrez has the desired effect.

"He's not in good form now and I wanted to stimulate him," the Italian said after Leicester's 2-0 home defeat by Everton last weekend.

"I didn't see him do well during the training sessions and he must give more for the team.

"I want more."

CAPABLE OF MUCH MORE

He's not in good form now and I wanted to stimulate him. I didn't see him do well during the training sessions and he must give more for the team.

'' CLAUDIO RANIERI, Leicester manager, challenging Riyad Mahrez to raise his game.

Ranieri, of course, could have directed his words at the vast majority of his players.

At this stage last season, Leicester were top of the league, having lost only twice. Today, they lie 16th, with no fewer than nine defeats.

Yet, it is Mahrez, the 2015-16 Professional Footballers' Association Players Player of the Year, who is in the spotlight.

In the summer, he was the subject of much transfer speculation, with Arsenal and Barcelona reportedly among the interested parties.

Loyalty to the club and the group of team-mates whom he had helped to the Premier League title was a main driver in Mahrez agreeing to stay and signing a lucrative four-year contract extension.

But another factor that helped move the needle was Ranieri pointing out that at other clubs, he would be one of many talented players, whereas at Leicester, he would be the focal point.

The manager held up his end of the bargain, doing everything in his power to give Mahrez confidence and making him central to the 2016-17 version of the team.

The 25-year-old has featured in every league game this season (only twice as a substitute, including Boxing Day) and five of six Champions League appearances.

And yet his productivity is way down when compared with this time last season, both in terms of goals (from 13 to three) and assists (from seven to two).

One problem for Mahrez could be that the pieces around him are working differently and he has not yet fully adjusted.

For much of last season, he was free to cut inside with two mobile, selfless forwards, Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy, creating space.

This season, the trio of Mahrez, Okazaki and Vardy have started just seven of 18 Premier League games together, with Islam Slimani, a new arrival, often preferred at centre-forward.

He is a prolific scorer and physical presence, but Slimani has affected the way that Leicester - and in particular - Mahrez play.

Equally, Vardy has not been as sharp. He has scored in just three of 18 league games. At this stage last year, it was 13 of 18 as he went on to finish with 24 goals, joint-second with Manchester City's Sergio Aguero and one behind Harry Kane of Tottenham.

Ranieri had budgeted for the fact that this season would be different.

The summer transfer campaign was meant to address this, as well as filling the hole left in midfield by N'Golo Kante's exit to Chelsea.

Despite trying a number of solutions, replacing Kante has been impossible. And it has had a knock-on effect, on the speed of Leicester's counter-attack and on the freedom granted to the wide players, including Mahrez.

Relative to this stage last season, the real difference for Leicester is at the attacking end.

They are not counter-attacking as quickly, are taking fewer shots and most of them are poor. It is not all down to Mahrez, of course.

But Ranieri knows that Mahrez at his best can paper over a whole lot of cracks, of the kind that form when a team are evolving tactically.

And he is hoping that a bit of Boxing Day stick - after plenty of carrots this season - might help prompt the return of the Mahrez of 2015-16.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2016, with the headline 'Foxes need Mahrez to fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe