Although the match ultimately ended in a draw, Jamie Vardy’s goal against Manchester United went down in history as the game where he broke Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in ten consecutive games.
The Leicester striker has been at the heart of his team’s amazing Premier League campaign where they currently sit atop the table with 38 points in 17 games. Vardy has scored 15 times in those games, and is currently leading the race for the Golden Boot. But just two goals behind him, sits none another than his teammate, the man that has been THE player of the season so far – Riyad Mahrez.
The 24-year-old Algerian has been involved in more league goals (20) than anyone in England, and this stat is bettered by only three players in Europe. What Mahrez has given to Leicester, however, is not just a matter of stats. His performances have arguably made more of an impact than Vardy’s goals.
However, to understand Mahrez’s form and his importance, it is imperative that one understand the playing style that Ranieri has implemented this season. Despite his influence and Vardy’s exploits, the team’s success cannot just be put down to the work of two men alone. The manager Claudio Ranieri, the defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante and the entire back line all deserve plaudits.
Leicester’s average possession after 17 games this season is just 43.1% (18th in the league), which suggests that this team is not exactly a side that Pep Guardiola would love to manage. Leicester love a quick approach to the game, opting to make defence splitting passes and long balls rather than passing the ball sideways and backwards in an attempt to create a perfectly crafted team goal (not that they haven’t had those types of moments this season).
Vardy’s record breaking goal against Manchester United — which came through a defence splitting Fuchs’ ball — or Mahrez’s second goal against Chelsea — which came through a quick counter-attack — are prime examples of their style of play this season. This kind of approach to the game benefits the quick paced and smart player that Mahrez is.
Mahrez loves to run into empty spaces, and then uses his mazy dribbling and rapid pace to get the better of his opposition. Along with this is the fact that he is adept at playing a high pressing game. The Algerian is one of the few players this season to have won the ball more than 10 times in the attacking third.
He has even more aspects to his game. Only Mesut Ozil (who himself is without a doubt, the second best player in the league right now) has created more clear cut chances while no player in the league has completed more dribbles (54) than Mahrez.
These stats are very important in giving context as to what kind of a player the Algerian is; a fast moving trickster, not afraid to run directly into the heart of the defence if he has to, and equally adept in creating chances as he is in scoring.
The Premier League this season itself, has seen several players who bamboozle opponents with their dribbling and defence splitting passes. Mahrez is one who stands out, simply because he can possesses the end product as well.
Eden Hazard was named PFA Player of the Year after 14 league goals and nine assists. Mahrez on 13 goals and seven assists by Christmas.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) December 20, 2015
There are players like Liverpool’s Jordon Ibe or Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling who will run the entire length of the pitch, dribble past one or two defenders, but give the ball away or make a wayward shot just when they’re needed to deliver the most.
The end product is not there, and hence, the entire attack goes to waste — Mahrez does not flatter to deceive. If he runs the length of the entire pitch, he makes sure to make it count with the ball ending up in the net more often than not. This is all the more crucial considering Leicester rarely have superior possession — Mahrez for example, only had 33 touches of the ball against Chelsea, but finished the game with a goal and an assist. And that is why, he stands out.
Vardy’s rise from the lower leagues will be talked about for the entire season and his record may stand for years to come (it is interesting to note that Vardy would not have broken the record had Mahrez not generously allowed him to take the penalty against Watford, which he converted for his 9th consecutive league goal). Mesut Ozil no doubt, deserves praise for being the best playmaker in the world in his current form.
But if Leicester are to continue this run and finish anywhere in the top four, the efforts and contribution of Riyad Mahrez will be forever immortalised in their history, and in the history of the English top flight itself.
The man who was signed for what would now seem a mere £500,000, is the best player in the league as of this moment — and no one can dispute that.