To label Riyad Mahrez one of the leading antagonists behind Leicester’s decline last season and the consequential sacking of Claudio Ranieri would be, perhaps, a little too severe.
After all, the Algerian international honoured the club that made him a title winner and one of the chief creative talents in the Premier League by promising them one more year when offers to leave were aplenty.
But his role in the Foxes’ plummet towards the relegation zone mimicked that of Eden Hazard at Chelsea the campaign prior. He’s Leicester’s talismanic attacker, the man relied upon to provide the cutting edge in a largely workaday team, but seemingly shied away from those responsibilities just when Leicester needed him most. Whether that was down to Mahrez, Ranieri’s tactics or simply Leicester losing form remains a matter of opinion.
But fast forward to a summer in which everything we know about the transfer market has seemingly been flipped on its head, and it’s Mahrez who is serving as a rare beacon of professionalism in the Premier League.
We can safely assume clubs of considerable stature are interested in the 26-year-old’s ability, in fact Roma have already made several offers, yet he’s started the season in superfluous form, inspiring his side to a valiant performance against Arsenal and a 2-0 win over newly promoted Brighton last weekend – notching up two assists in the process.
Of course, that’s exactly what you’d expect a player of Mahrez’s quality to do, but that’s precisely the point. Compare that to the situations of Philippe Coutinho at Liverpool, Virgil van Dijk at Southampton and Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal amid links with some of the biggest clubs in the Premier League and Europe. Not so coincidentally and incredibly inconveniently, all have declared themselves injured – one assumes until the transfer window closes.
Jonny Evans, Ross Barkley and Nahki Wells, although not directly accused, intriguingly fall into that category of injured, linked away and likely to move before the summer is over as well. Then there’s the small matter of Diego Costa, who has gone AWOL in Brazil after being informed of Chelsea’s intentions to sell him.
It’s hard to tell quite when this trend of began, although Gareth Bale deciding not to turn up to what would have been his final Tottenham training session in summer 2013 ahead of a world-record move to Real Madrid certainly stirred up a storm at the time. During the intermittent period, however, the practice has further evolved; players who haven’t even fully secured a move to another club are laying down sick notes for a considerably longer period, making themselves unavailable for selection for the start of the new Premier League season.
There are some reasons to justify that, highlighted by Bale four years ago. An actual injury could scupper a potential move, so it makes sense for both the player and the club to protect themselves to ensure the deal goals through. That also explains why Mahrez has been the reverse case this summer; unlike Coutinho, Sanchez and van Dijk, the Algerian still needs to fully convince after an incredibly underwhelming 2016/17.
It’s been down to him to put himself at the forefront of the shop window – Coutinho, van Dijk and Sanchez, on the other hand, have stowed away under the till, safe in the belief the right suiter will come to collect them at some point before the window slams shut.
However, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pellegrino cant’ be satisfied starting the season without key players, not knowing if they’ll ever play for the club again yet unable to reinvest the funds their departures would provide.
Essentially, that’s anywhere between £50million-£130million of talent being removed from Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton’s matchday squads for the first two Premier League outings of the campaign. Even amid the current transfer window, that’s a lot of quality to start the season without.
The obvious criticism, aside from selection headaches and leaving managers in the lurch, is the distinct lack of professionalism and loyalty. The idea of honouring a contract has steadily corroded in football over the last decade – just look at how many players move a matter of months into signing five-year deals – but effectively going on strike is a worrying step into the extreme.
Of course, nobody can force a footballer to play against their will, but you’d expect those involved in a profession that pays so well, and especially Coutinho and van Dijk who were relatively anonymous before moving to their current clubs, to take it upon themselves to give something back to their managers, their clubs and their fans. Selfish, careerist instincts, however, have unfortunately taken over.
“It would have helped us this year (if the window shut when the season started). There is a phenomenon and then people go looking for solutions. It makes sense that when the season is starting, planning for the team is over. But I also understand that some things take a bit more time. The whole market has changed – the behaviour of people.
“It’s good to be with your whole team on the training pitch. The best thing is that the team stays together for four or five years but I know it’s quite naïve to say such a thing. I know the market has changed, it’s become very hectic, but we won’t take that as an excuse. We have a good team.”
That has lead more than one manager (including Klopp) to suggest the transfer window should close when the Premier League season starts, something the clubs in the division are now reported to be pushing for. While that may avoid some of the situations we’ve seen during the opening weeks of the season, however, rule changes have a knack of only creating new problems, and the real crux of the issue is the relentless increase of player power since the introduction of the Bosman ruling.
Players have been commodities in financial terms since the first ever transfer fee in the 19th century, but it’s now them rather than the clubs that can hold their value to ransom.
Seemingly irreversible, wantaway players will one way or another find strategies to force moves regardless of when the transfer window ends. The trend of going on strike, however, is a particularly unsavoury one.