Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! On Sunday night, Leicester City midfielder Riyad Mahrez beat Harry Kane to be crowned PFA Players’ Player of the Year. So we asked football writers Joel Golby and Matt Blake if the Algerian playmaker really deserved the accolade.
YES! He’s been simply the best
“Mahrez offers something different: a flash of Barcelona-by-way-of-the-Midlands” – Joel Golby, football writer, Vice
Mahrez looks like that small fella who hangs around with all the buff blokes at the gym and laughs at their jokes. Nobody really likes him, but they keep him around because he lets them bench press him in front of girls. But now look at him: he’s the best midfielder in the Barclays Premier League. He’s done it without a big boot deal, without a big-budget ad campaign, and without a traditional top-four team. That’s real tekkers.
He’s très continental
We like things simple in the UK. We like it when Harry Kane clonks the ball in from three yards using the front of his face, and we like good old-fashioned wingplay. We also like it when Wayne Rooney gets frustrated at not scoring, so he gets a straight red instead. But Mahrez offers something different: a flash of Barcelona-by-way-of-the-Midlands, a conjuring of something else. He’s been the best in the league this year because – with his livewire turns, sliderule forward passing and sheer electric running – he’s playing a completely different game to anyone else.
He’s a vital cog in the machine
The entire Leicester squad more or less deserved a Player of the Year nod: Robert Huth and Wes Morgan at the back, who have been monstrously peerless; Christian Fuchs, so good nobody even mentions the fact that his name sounds funny; Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, the cheeriest front-two in history; N’Golo Kanté, a man you seriously feel could demolish a large garage with a shoulder barge. But the creative glue working for and between all of them has been Mahrez. Outstanding on his own, yes, but even more so as part of a team.
Of 35 league games this year, Mahrez has appeared for Leicester in 34: just one substitute appearance, just one match missed. In that time he’s hit 17 (mostly beautiful) goals and provided 11 assists for his teammates. He’s brought his all-round A-game to every single match this season, and raised his team’s performance along the way. In a league of £25 million midfielders who warm the big teams’ benches, Mahrez’s consistency has been a lesson in how to do it for everyone else – a far cry from last year’s PFA award winner, Eden Hazard.
He proves that anyone can do it
Mahrez has had more of a vibe of “hidden gem you unearth on Football Manager” about him: plying his trade at Ligue 2 Le Havre two years ago, the 25-year-old built on an occasionally inspired but mostly patchy season last year and has taken Leicester from relegation candidates to possible champions in the space of a year. The Algerian is also the first African to ever win the Player of the Year gong – over big glamour names like Didier Drogba or Yaya Touré. Not bad for a player who cost £400,000.
NO! Kane’s been better
"It’s not just Kane’s consistency that makes him the best player. It’s also his leadership.” – Matt Blake, sports writer, Virgin Media
Kane deserves it more
Riyad Mahrez is an electrifying footballer who’s had an electrifying season. He deserves to be recognised for that, but I think Harry Kane deserves the award more. I put this down, mainly, to his consistency. He was dazzling last season, and has been dazzling again this time out, which is never guaranteed. Just look at how Eden Hazard’s game fell off the cliff this season after scooping the Player of the Year award last year. Unlike Hazard, Kane has stubbornly refused to look down from the dizzying heights to which he has climbed in becoming the best striker in England in just two seasons. Far from succumbing to the gravity of expectation, he’s dug in and clambered higher. So I’d have given it to Kane this year, and Mahrez next year… if he, like Kane, can do it all over again.
I haven’t quite finished with Kane
It’s not just Kane’s consistency that makes him player of the season for me. It’s also his leadership. If, by a miracle, Spurs win the league this season, it’ll be because of Harry Kane. Kane is a talisman of a player with the hairstyle and gusto of a Second World War wing commander. He has led Tottenham into battle from the front, scoring 24 goals so far this season – more than any other player in the Barclays Premier League. That’s 37 per cent of Spurs’ entire tally. How many times have we seen Spurs on a sticky wicket, only for Wing Commander Kane to swoop in, goggles down (literally, for a while), silk scarf flying and bag a brace? Mahrez doesn’t lead his team like Kane does.
Mahrez is great, but Leicester are better
If football really is like chess, then Mahrez is Leicester’s knight. Like a knight, he can hop, jump and weave his way around rival pieces in ways few others can. And he is ruthlessly effective in the hand of a grandmaster like Claudio Ranieri. But a knight can rarely win a game without support from other key pieces. By that standard, I’d suggest Jamie Vardy is Leicester’s queen with his lightning pace and killer instinct in front of goal, while N’Golo Kanté is its rook, sweeping effortlessly from defence to attack with alarming dynamism. If Leicester win the league this season, it will be because they bossed every single square of the board, not just the ones covered by Mahrez’s beguiling L-shaped runs.
He’s not created as many chances as you think
According to football stat-factory Squawka, Mahrez has created 52 chances for Leicester this season so far. Not only is that 84 less than the Barclays Premier League creator-in-chief Mezut Özil, but it pales even against the likes of Moussa Sissoko (55) and equals that of Robbie Brady (52), whose respective Newcastle and Norwich look likely to not even be in the top flight next year. It’s something to think about, that’s all I’m saying.
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