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When the Riyad Mahrez debacle unfurled on transfer deadline day I thought that the Algerian was about to get the move he had both longed and worked for.
Manchester City had lost Sanchez, so to Mahrez they turned making four bids, the last of which was thought to be worth £65m and included a player as part of the deal.
Leicester though turned down City’s offering as well as Mahrez’s transfer request, just as they had done in the summer. Mahrez’s response to the collapse of his move was to go on strike and he has apparently not returned to training since, although news has been circulating that the Algerian is ready to return to his club provided they allow him to leave in the summer and put a release clause in his contract.
Naturally, much has been made of Mahrez’s behaviour, both his last-minute transfer request and his self-imposed exile.
The arguments are familiar ones: Arsene Wenger called on Mahrez to show more professionalism, while Dennis Wise chimed in by saying Mahrez was being disrespectful to the club that had ‘given him a chance’ and that as such “he’s let himself down, his team-mates down, and the people at Leicester down”.
On his part, Mahrez has apparently informed Leicester that he is absent because of depression, so some degree of judgement has to be reserved until the full extent of the player’s health has been assessed.
Totally aside from that though, here are three reasons why Riyad Mahrez is well within his rights to go on strike and why his refusal to return until he is guaranteed a move is a wise one.
We need to get over the idea that players owe clubs anything
There was a time in football when a club reflected its local area not only in spirit, but in the players who turned out for it.
Sides would be stacked with ‘local lads’ who kicked tattered footballs in the streets between terraced houses while the fog drifted in front of the stadium floodlights at the bottom of the hill.
Those days are gone though. Nowadays a club’s heritage is little more than a marketing tool, ensuring the fan base keep buying their season tickets, replica shirts and end of season DVDs. The majority of clubs lack any reflection of their local area in any significant areas, not just on the pitch, or the dugout, but in the boardroom too.
Football is a business and if you’re talking about loyalty, what about those players who help their side win promotion to the Premier League before getting discarded, replaced by a shinier, newer, more experienced model? Clubs sign players who match their ambition and does anyone so much as offer a word of condolence to those that get cast aside? Not that I’ve heard.
So why should it not be the same for players? Players who have been shipped in from France and Spain and Brazil and Algeria, who have no connection to the club they represent except that which is contained in the contract they signed. Clearly it is one rule for the club and one rule for the player.
Commenting on this issue, many owners, managers and fans will chastise a player for thinking they are bigger than the club, or showing disrespect or a lack of loyalty (a-la Dennis Wise). But they don’t understand that the player’s relationship to the club is different to theirs.
Loyalty is a cheap shot employed to emotionally blackmail players into submission. The reality is that there is no loyalty, there is business and if you shine a lens on Mahrez his stacks up just about as well as it is imaginable.
He helped them gain promotion, he helped them establish themselves in the Premier League and he helped them win the Premier League. Sure, his wages are substantial, but that pales in comparison to the increase in Leicester’s revenue that Mahrez has directly influenced.
Ultimately, Mahrez is right to want out of Leicester because the club’s ambition/ability matches his own.
A player who could play for a top 4 side and test himself in the Champions League is a fool and a coward if he settles for finishing 7th, especially if it for some misplaced notion of loyalty that died somewhere around 1992.
Mahrez has already shown a fantastic attitude following the summer
What makes the criticism of Mahrez’s character even more ironic is the fact that having been denied a move in the summer, Mahrez has demonstrated exactly the kind of character that any owner, manager or fan could ask of his player.
This season the Algerian has 8 goals and 7 assists to his name and is demonstrating the same ability to impact games as he did in Leicester’s title winning season two years ago.
Not only did Mahrez swallow his pride after being denied a move, he came back to work and, unlike Alexis Sanchez who just strolled around the field paying lip service to the idea of playing, Mahrez actually improved his game from the year before.
Reports have come in that Pep Guardiola, so shocked at Mahrez’s response to his transfer collapse, is ready to pull the plug on a summer move for the player. But, I for one have no issues with Mahrez’s attitude.
Would you rather have a player who gets his kit on but gives 50% wallowing around the pitch clearly daydreaming of his soon to be announced move, or a player who gives his absolute all and having done so, feeling let down by his club, feels he can no longer offer that level of commitment thus removing himself and his disruption from the squad?
Personally, I would take the second every day of the week.
Mahrez is a pawn in a game played by chairmen
And Mahrez has good reason to be upset (let’s hope he is not truly depressed). At 26 he is in his prime, but also at a delicate age where the line between ‘has it’ and ‘past it’ is a fine one, especially for top clubs like Manchester City.
Suppose Leon Bailey continues to excel for Bayer Leverkusen, when the summer rolls around, who will be the more attractive prospect for City: a 27-year old Riyad Mahrez, or £100m or a 21-year old Bailey?
City made an offer that they believed to be fair, worth a reported £65m and it was Leicester’s determination to hold out for £95m that prevented the deal from taking place.
It would be easy to characterise Leicester’s approach as one of pure greed, but in fairness to the club, the prices demanded for player’s, even average ones, are rising across the board. £95m isn’t as much as you might think in modern football and Leicester are only trying to not get caught short.
Nonetheless, the situation reflects the extent to which Mahrez is a pawn caught in a much bigger game of chess, one which he is wise to be trying to extricate himself from. Many will comment on Mahrez’s situation and argue that he has no right to ask to leave having signed a new contract in 2016.
But anyone who can engage in football without emotion blinding their judgement knows that contracts are little more than insurance policies for clubs, meaning that when players leave, they do so on the club’s terms (for an exercise in how not to do it, look at Arsenal).
The general consensus is that power lies with the players nowadays and perhaps it does, but is that a bad thing? At its heart, the Mahrez fiasco is a story of two separate entities trying to achieve what is best for them personally and if anything, Mahrez’s intentions are probably nobler than his clubs: he wants to leave to play at a higher level, his club want to keep him because they want more money.
The debate about player power and transfer requests will rage on and on. One thing is for sure though, Riyad Mahrez is well within his rights to be upset with his club.
Criticisms of his character and professionalism are unreasonable and unwarranted and Mahrez’s attempts to take control of his own future are both admirable and smart. Good luck to you Mahrez, I hope you get the move you want.
Written by Scott Pope
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