“I hope Riyad gets his head right and comes back with us.”
Claude Puel’s tone seemed genuine. The Leicester boss brings his side to Manchester City on Saturday and, for the third consecutive fixture, he’ll be without his best player.
Riyad Mahrez is ‘depressed, after a last-ditch move to the Citizens collapsed on Deadline Day. Angry at his club’s obstinacy, he has refused to attend training or take part in games since.
In the aftermath of this refusal, some commentators have lambasted the Algerian for a lack of professionalism. He should suck it up, they say, and get on with his job.
Consider this, however: you are a footballer linked with arguably the two most desirable clubs in Europe in successive transfer windows. How would you feel if factors outside of your control caused both of those moves to break down?
Pretty bad, right? It’d be worse, then, if your performances had inspired your club to the most jaw-dropping success in its history?
It’d hurt to see other players who contributed less to that triumph than you did being allowed to leave. They might have less talent than you but they’re earning more, playing in better teams and getting more chances of winning trophies.
Would you think that’s fair?
Quite simply, Leicester owe it to Mahrez to let him go in the summer. He has been the club’s best player for two years, a travelling trickster whose gliding ability saw him win the Premier League Player of the Year in 2016.
To his credit, he has already shrugged off the disappointment of one failed transfer to remain a key member of the team this season, even if his output has declined. His reward was the denial of a second golden opportunity to move.
These are circumstances that would test the enthusiasm of even the most ardent professional.
A late arrival
Mahrez is 26. He’s in the prime of his career but he has been a late arrival to the elite stage. As such, he has been slow to receive the kind of wages commensurate with a player of his age and profile.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t graduate from a gilded academy to be met with a bumper contract before he’d made a first-team appearance.
As a result, he had to work, graduating from the lower levels of French football with Le Havre before arriving in England as an obscurity.
His financial future, then, is less secure than players who have palpably-less talent.
It's not about the money
The benefits of a move wouldn’t be purely financial, though. City and Barcelona could have offered him a place in the Champions League, a competition that his ability deserves.
Leicester is a fine city, but it pales in comparison to the kind of lifestyle the Algerian could enjoy in Catalunya. Would you refuse such a glamorous opportunity?
Mahrez has done nothing more egregious than voice his frustration at a club that is willingly holding him back. Equally, though, Leicester’s justification for the refusal is equally valid. Leroy Sané’s long-term injury meant that they had Manchester City over a barrel.
A rumoured fee of £60 million meant one of two outcomes; either they receive an over-the-odds sum, or they retain him for the push towards the top seven places.
Mahrez’s reaction, however, suggests that the club have miscalculated badly.
The longer this situation prevails, the more toxic it will become for Leicester’s season. Puel and his players will be asked about the situation constantly. His side’s losses will be viewed through its prism. Mahrez will dominate the rest of the campaign like a bad smell.
All things considered, the situation only ends one way: Leicester must sell Mahrez in the summer. Doing so would apportion them a sizeable transfer fee but it would also rid the club of a negative influence in the dressing room.
Mahrez has outgrown his surroundings but he should not be expected to be quiet about it.
What do you think about the way Riyad Mahrez has been treated? Let us know by writing in the comments section below.