Mahrez to become a Gunner? But is he the ammunition they need?
Posted by Featured Articles | Published on July 23, 2016
As the summer transfer window begins to accelerate into full stride, there is one seemingly inevitable name that has recently cropped up with a supposed transfer elsewhere; PFA Player of the Year and Premier League winner Riyad Mahrez. After bagging 17 goals and laying on 11 assists as minnows Leicester City romped towards the Premier League title, it is no surprise to finally see the former Le Havre prodigy on the lips of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. However, as speculation increases regarding the potential signing from unconfirmed reports by Eurosport France, there a plethora of questions over the suitability of the transfer. Is Mahrez the type of player Arsenal desperately need? Does he suit the possession-based style of play implemented by the Gunners? Or simply will he be able to replicate his scintillating form in the upcoming season?
A year after being scouted and signed by then soon-to-be Championship winners Leicester City for a meagre £400,000, Mahrez was part of the notable 14/15 team which won seven of its last nine games as they avoided relegation to the Championship, in their first Premier League campaign in 10 years. Mahrez scored both goals in a 2-0 defeat of Southampton on 9th May and ended the season with 4 goals and 3 assists in 30 appearances.
Upon signing a new four-year contract with Leicester ahead of the upcoming season, Mahrez was set to make his mark and light up the Premier League. After scoring 4 goals in the first 3 games, including a notable double in the season opener against Sunderland, Mahrez embarked upon a run of superb form leading to his nomination for the Player of the Month Award. In the aftermath of a 3-0 win against Swansea City in December, whereby Mahrez stole the headlines with his first ever League hat-trick, he totalled 10 league goals and earned rave plaudits from pundits and players alike. Along with his midfield partners N’Golo Kanté, Marc Albrighton and Danny Drinkwater, the ex-Le Havre winger was described by manager Claudio Ranieri as “priceless” ahead of the January transfer window.
Despite no transfer away from Leicester in the January window coming to fruition, Mahrez went from strength to strength as his popularity and price soared as he simultaneously became part of the historic Leicester team to win the Premier League title, after overcoming pre-season odds of 5000/1. Mahrez was one of four Leicester players nominated in the PFA Team of the Year and later that month claimed the PFA Player of the Year, to add to his glowing trophy cabinet.
Perhaps what was so fascinating about the rapid ascent of the often overlooked slender winger, was his amount of goals and assists despite being played on the right of a predominant 4-4-2 formation. Scoring 17 goals over the course of a season is no mean feat and although it showcases his famed talent in a wide position, there is far more to his game than this. In terms of assists, the Algerian international was joint-third overall with 11 assists to his name, bettered only by Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil (18) and Tottenham star Christian Eriksen (12). Mahrez similarly contributed to a mesmerising 44.4% of Leicester’s goals last season, as he ranked himself as one of the Premier League’s stars in attacking efficiency and the hub of creativity.
In realisation of his ordinary upbringing and sudden shot to fame, Mahrez was evidently humble as he scooped his PFA award and paid tribute to his manager and fellow players.
“All credit is for them, seriously,” Mahrez said of his Leicester teammates. “And for my manager and the staff. Without them I wouldn’t receive this award and I wouldn’t score. It’s the team spirit and I want to dedicate it to them.”
Yet this sense of loyalty and camaraderie within the tightly-knit Leicester squad will now be severely tested however as, with Kanté seeking pastures new in Antonio Conte’s Chelsea revolution, Mahrez has a big decision to make after becoming the subject of serious interest from Arsenal. So then where would the 25 year old fit into the Gunners’ team?
Despite the overwhelming number of options Arsenal have in their midfield, there is a a lack of star quality on the right hand side of their midfield, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell all failing to cement a regular position on the aforementioned side of the midfield. In comes Mahrez. Suddenly, a front three of Alexis, Özil and Mahrez would instil fear into defences across the league and indeed even Europe. The Leicester phenomenon would theoretically fit seamlessly into a team boasting a wealth of quality in many positions and he would be a constant menace to opposition full backs with his deft trickery and explosive acceleration. This is evident upon Mahrez being confirmed as last season’s joint-highest player who had been fouled (42 times) along with Watford striker Odion Ighalo.
But despite acting on the right hand midfield, Mahrez has often dome the most damage in central areas of the field after cutting in on his favoured and deadly left foot. This was employed successfully by Ranieri’s 4-4-2 formation, whereby Vardy and Okazaki/Ulloa would run into the channels and take a CB with them and thus leave acres of space for Mahrez to do his damage. Yet Arsenal’s main striker in the form of Olivier Giroud, is a player who is adept at holding up the ball using his muscular build and large frame and is at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Mahrez’s Leicester teammates Jamie Vardy and Okazaki/Ulloa. So if he were to join Arsenal, he would be faced with a scenario and teammates he isn’t perhaps used to and could find central areas of space difficult to come by. Being forced to ‘hug’ the touchline and even be doubled up on by opposition defenders, Riyad Mahrez may find this a problem should he complete a move to North London.
Moreover, Arsène Wenger’s notoriety as a manager is based upon an attacking philosophy and has often been praised for his Arsenal’s teams producing beautiful, possession-based football. This is in stark contrast to the style implemented by Ranieri’s underdogs however, as they claimed their maiden Premier League title with the lowest average possession in the history of all League winners (43% as opposed to other winners’ averages of 58%). Therefore a move to Wenger’s Gunners would be literally a whole new ball game for Mahrez, having thrived in Leicester’s famous counter-attacking system. Yet, for every negative there is also a positive and Mahrez has proved he is able to unlock defensive opponents just as he would have to do should he complete a move to Arsenal. On the same day as Arsenal salvaged a 2-2 draw in the North London derby, Riyad Mahrez was able to score the winner against Watford at Vicarage Road in March, in a game where Leicester were the rare favourite. His ability to ghost past a team who were ‘parking the bus’ and prove his effectiveness in possession, as opposed to simply on the counter, was tantamount to crucial on Leicester’s eventual road to the title and to prove his ability to adapt to various playing styles.
In what may be Arsène Wenger’s final season as Arsenal manager, drawing the curtain on a famous tenure in North London, it seems as though he is determined to finally land the Premier League title which has eluded them for over 12 years since Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’. The shrewd acquisition of midfield maestro Granit Xhaka from Borussia Mönchengladbach has gone some way to silencing the majority of Wenger’s critics and those who were calling for his head at the tail end of last season. But although Xhaka is a quality signing without a doubt, also on Arsenal’s summer shopping list should be a top quality striker and even centre back, before thoughts turn elsewhere. Since the acrimonious exit of then club captain Robin Van Persie to rivals Manchester United, Arsenal have failed to invest in a quality striker to provide much-needed firepower up front. The arrivals of Olivier Giroud and recently Danny Welbeck have done little to quench fans’ thirst for a truly world class striker and despite Giroud’s reasonable goal tallies in recent seasons, his untimely injuries and tendency to go missing in big games has led to him becoming a much maligned figure from irritated fans. Despite the dearth of ‘world class’ strikers currently available and Wenger’s reluctance to spend big, Arsenal have been linked with moves for Mauro Icardi and also Alexandre Lacazette. Either of these would provide a significant upgrade on Giroud and could allow Arsenal to play two strikers up front and could well increase their chance of winning the league with a quality striker.
Also, given that centre back Gabriel Paulista has failed to deceive with many lacklustre performances at the heart of defence, even a top centre back must be a priority before Arsenal even think about a move for Mahrez. Given Mahrez’s rumoured price tag of £40 million in addition to the £30 million spent on Granit Xhaka, it seems highly unlikely that Wenger would be willing to spend even more on a Lacazette or Icardi to satisfy the squad’s needs, despite his recent quotes.
“We are very active, and if we find the right candidates, we will spend big,” Wenger remarked after a 1-1 draw with RSC Lens in a pre-season friendly on Friday.
And there you have it. Some of the few question marks regarding the suitability of Mahrez’s proposed transfer to Arsenal, should it come to fruition. If Mahrez does sign on the dotted line for Arsenal, it would not only be a signal of intent to rival title challengers, but a wonderful addition to an already talented midfield. Given how Mahrez is approaching the peak of his powers, it would only make sense to be contemplating a move to a club of Arsenal’s fame and stature, despite Leicester also having Champions League football. And despite how it may go some way to appeasing the masses of #WengerOut cynics, it cannot hide the glaring deficiencies which Arsenal have in defence and up front. If Arsène Wenger is looking for the missing piece in the jigsaw to claim a title and go out with his head held high, Riyad Mahrez is not the missing piece- and there’s no guarantee he would fit at all.