At the start of the summer, Leicester City winger Riyad Mahrez wasted no time in declaring his intentions for the upcoming transfer window. The King Power Stadium was still emptying out as the Algerian handed in a transfer request to the former Premier League champions, and it was clear that, for him, the fairy-tale had reached its furthest point. Leicester City were relatively receptive of Mahrez’s wishes – in a move that appeared to have been pre-agreed – and slapped a price-tag on their star that they thought worthy of a recent PFA Player of the Year winner – thought to be in the region of £50m.
Had this been in the 2016 window, Premier League clubs would have no doubt been queuing down the M69 to give Mahrez a lift to their respective training facilities. However, a dismal 2016/17 season stamped the mercurial winger with a negative label. Critics of the Foxes had regularly targeted Mahrez for individual digs, claiming he didn’t care enough about the club and wasn’t giving 100%. In hindsight, the Algerian was the easiest target in a team that contains the more traditional mould of player; it’s a lot harder to claim that Jamie Vardy isn’t on board when he’s charging down centre-backs, however effectively that was.
For much of the summer, it has looked like Mahrez has been heading to Italy with AS Roma. The Italian club have had bids of £27m and £32m rejected by the Foxes – which would have broken their club record – and it now looks as if the wantaway star is back to square one in his bid to move on with his career.
Is a Coutinho-sized hole about to open?
In the north-west of England, a more progressive saga is reaching its climax, with Philippe Coutinho looking increasingly likely to leave Liverpool in the lurch and head for Barcelona. Ironically, it’s a move that Mahrez himself was reportedly eyeing up last summer but, as a result of his poor season, that dream is temporarily on hold. If the Brazilian’s move is completed, it leaves Jurgen Klopp with a large, star player-shaped hole in his side, and a kitty in excess of £100m to fill it with.
At this stage in the window, it is near-impossible for a club to replace a star player such as Coutinho with someone of exactly the same calibre. There’s no doubt that Klopp will have to take a risk on a player, hoping he develops into the ilk of Coutinho, but then again that’s exactly what Brendan Rodgers did when he signed the Brazilian for just £8.5m.
In Mahrez, there is a Premier League player who is on the market and has the potential to be the best player in the league, when he’s up for it. Like it or loathe it, the Algerian’s mercurial nature means that a dose motivation is compulsory for him to play well. Last season, that was severely lacking: he had already won the league, he wanted to leave and he ended up fighting relegation.
Can Mahrez play Coutinho’s role?
So, if Klopp was to turn to Mahrez, would he be able to step into Coutinho’s shoes? Many people criticise the winger’s level of pace – which often can see him ineffective on the counter-attack or in a fast-paced game – but with Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah on the flanks, there’s hardly a lack of speed in Liverpool’s side. Coutinho himself is light on the ground but would not be considered particularly quick.
The value that Coutinho would leave behind is the ability to carry the ball, break the defensive lines and, effectively, create something out of nothing. It’s no secret that Mahrez’s strengths are showcased on the ball, and his close control allows him to progress up the pitch in a way that only a few players can. With the parallels established, here’s a look at how the two compare statistically, with Mahrez’s best season (2015/16) against Coutinho’s (2016/17)…
The number of variables to this comparison are high: different positions, different teams and playing styles, different individual roles. That being said, it highlights the potential for Mahrez to take the reins if required to. The Algerian thrives on the ball, and subsequently, it would be expected that he would play better in a team that controlled the ball as opposed to one that often relied on phases on 10-20 seconds of counter-attacking possession.
Mahrez’s time at Leicester City has been predominantly been spent hugging the touchline, but Coutinho’s role requires more time in central areas, especially now Salah has entered the fray to take up the opposing wing spot to Mané. The aforementioned lack of pace that Mahrez is often critiqued on could be the key characteristic that qualifies him to move into a number 10 role at Liverpool.
I’m sure Liverpool fans wouldn’t be too upset to see an attacking lineup as followed…
Mahrez’s attacking versatility matches that of his fellow three forwards in this formation and would cause for one of the most fluid attacks in the Premier League. The question now is whether Klopp is prepared to take a chance on a player that is very uncharacteristic of a ‘Klopp signing’ in a late bid to fill the void that Philippe Coutinho is set to leave vacant.
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