Joe Brewin profiles the Leicester winger whose rapid rise from non-league to World Cup has Foxes fans hot under the collar...
The 60-second story
Aged 18, it wasn’t even certain that Riyad Mahrez would earn himself a contract with French non-leaguers Quimper.
On a trial day five years ago the wiry youngster was pitted against more than a dozen other young upstarts hoping to catch the eye. Then-manager Ronan Salaun recalled a player who “crevé l’écran” (literally translated to ‘burst the screen’, i.e. he was rather good, although “frail”) – but a lack of cash meant the club initially decided they couldn’t afford to give him a contract.
Salaun broke the news; Mahrez cried. Little did the tricky Parisian know, however, was that those tears would help him to the Premier League and a World Cup, via three-and-a-half years in Ligue 2. “It touched me,” Salaun later told L'Équipe. “It was a kid who really wanted to succeed.”
- Date of birth: February 21, 1991
- Place of birth: Sarcelles, Paris, France
- Position: Winger
- Height: 5ft 10in
- Clubs: Quimper, Le Havre, Leicester; 19 apps (12 starts), 3 goals
- International: Algeria; 3 caps, 0 goals
The powers-that-be were convinced to sign up the tearful talent, and their decision proved a good one – after a year he was off to Le Havre, although he could have easily ended up elsewhere. Though Lens turned him down for being too weak, PSG and Marseille were keen to add him to their reserve sides. Despite the latter being his supported team, the lure of more regular football was too difficult to resist.
Two years later he was a permanent fixture in Le Havre's first team, tormenting second division full-backs in his attempts to catch the eye of Ligue 1 sides – and the nation of his father's heritage. “If I'm in Ligue 1, it will be easier,” he admitted.
Instead, Mahrez took the plunge with Leicester in January, with the Foxes powering their way back to the Premier League. Fans quickly realised they had a gem on their hands – as did Algeria, who named him among their 23 for Brazil after an excellent pre-tournament debut against Armenia.
Why you need to know him
If last year’s Championship displays are anything to go by, the 23-year-old could provide regular eye candy for Match of the Day viewers this term.
The Algeria international oozed confidence on both wings in his debut half-season at the King Power Stadium, and showed no signs of requiring the adjustment period often needed by young imports. Instead, after five substitute appearances, Nigel Pearson had no choice but to cement him into the Foxes’ young midfield.
It helped that his first goal came against East Midlands rivals Nottingham Forest, in his fourth appearance. It wasn’t pretty – an 82nd-minute tap-in off a missed Kevin Phillips penalty – but it was crucial in a 2-2 draw at the City Ground to extend Leicester’s unbeaten league run to 12 games. They wouldn’t lose again for another 10.
Pearson’s crack scouting team had enjoyed success with another young Gallic import, Anthony Knockaert, the previous campaign. But while the former France U21 international could be explosive and skilful on his day, he was nowhere near as consistent as his new team-mate.
Mahrez is a late bloomer no doubt – even at Le Havre he was just another player in a strong second-tier team for a while – but his rapid progression looks to be no flash-in-the-pan fluke. He was rarely wasteful in possession last season, and unselfish too, which bodes well for the unforgiving baptism of fire to come in the Premier League.
He only made his international debut two weeks before the World Cup started, but so good was his double-assist display in the 3-1 win over Armenia that coach Vahid Halilhodzic wasn't afraid to throw him in at the deep end. “When they [Algeria] want to call me, they will call me,” Mahrez said in November last year, while still at Le Havre. “They will not be disappointed.”
As it turned out they weren’t, although the tournament didn’t quite go as planned for the 23-year-old. He started the opening game against Belgium, but didn’t feature again as Algeria reached the last 16 and gave champions Germany a run for their money.
That’s to take nothing away from a player on the up, though. Leicester rightfully have high hopes for their exciting Desert Fox who could spring a surprise or two.
Bamboozled full-backs were beaten by his trickery and pace on numerous occasions last season, but most importantly there was often the end product to match. He netted three goals and assisted another four in 19 appearances for Leicester last season, including the crucial pearler against Blackpool below.
It helps being adept with both feet; while usually employed on the right wing, Mahrez is left-footed and cuts inside often to pose a threat centrally. By being unpredictable with his dribbling, opposition defenders are rarely given a comfortable ride. “He is a quick learner, a very confident young man,” Foxes boss Pearson declared within a month of him signing.
A lack of experience doesn’t help Mahrez as he prepares for his first-ever top-flight season, while physically there is still work to do. He was able to cope in the Championship despite a lack of strength, but he must ensure that his fitness levels are high if he’s to finish games with regularity this season.
“Mahrez has demonstrated that he can make a difference even without the ball," beamed Algeria boss Halilhodzic after the winger’s impressive debut. “He is technical, but also has that physical force.”
After late defeat to Belgium, however, the Bosnian admitted relying on his young players – including Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb – too much. “You cannot ask Mahrez or Bentaleb to do more,” he admitted. “They are very good players, but I do not think they can keep pace with a game like this to the end. They can not keep a complete game.” A learning curve.
- Shooting 7
- Heading 4
- Passing 6
- Tackling 5
- Pace 8
- Dribbling 8
- Creativity 7
- Work-rate 7
Did you know?
Leicester have a Forest player to thank for Mahrez agreeing to join them. Though the Foxes beat off reported interest from Torino, the wide-man’s first choice was to stay in Ligue 1. A call from Djamel Abdoun, however, convinced his international team-mate to take the plunge abroad. Poor Abdoun won't be for much longer, though, after being told he can leave.
What happens next
Not a great deal, in truth – in the immediate future, at least. First the 23-year-old must prove his worth in the Premier League by helping to keep Leicester there. With three years remaining on his contract, he’s going nowhere anytime soon.