There are few names more popular in world football at the minute than Jamie Vardy.
If you believe the tabloids, even European giants Real Madrid have found themselves lured to the Leicester City striker’s meteoric rise from non-league football to the Premier League’s record books ahead of the January transfer window.
It’s certainly an inspiring fairytale and the England international is certainly enjoying an incredible run of form, his 14 strikes in 14 appearances this season making him the Premier League’s top scorer and the new record-holder of scoring in eleven consecutive fixtures.
But form is temporary and class is permanent – as the old adage goes – and regardless of the murmurings in the Premier League’s rumour columns, amid audacious links to Chelsea, Manchester United and the aforementioned Blancos, the stats suggest another Leicester City star will go on to much greater things – flying winger Riyad Mahrez.
The Algerian international’s story isn’t too dissimilar to Vardy’s, albeit considerably less extreme. Just two years ago, he was plying his trade with Le Harve in the French second division until the Foxes snapped him up for a nominal £400k in January 2014.
18 months before that, he was struggling to break out of the Stade Oceane outfit’s reserve squad.
Even last season, Mahrez was a bit of a sideshow at the King Power stadium. He received 2080 minutes of playing time, which works out at about 23 full appearances, and at times seemed unable to shake off the ‘luxury player’ tag under Nigel Pearson.
During the run of seven wins in nine games that ensured Leicester’s survival at the end of last season, the winger only started three, whilst participation in the African Cup of Nations and a few niggling injuries limited his involvement earlier in the campaign. Although few doubted his natural talent, the likes of Esteban Cambiasso, Robert Huth, Vardy and Leonardo Ulloa were seen as the real stars of the Foxes’ great escape.
But the 24-year-old is now the third-top performing player across Europe’s five leading top flights according to stats enthusiasts WhoScored.com, who award him an average rating of 8.2, and it’s not hard to see why they hold his performances in such high esteem. Mahrez is joint-fifth in the Premier League’s goal charts with seven, joint-second in the assists table with six, joint-eighth in terms of created chances per match with 2.3 and top of the dribbles rankings with a division-best 3.7 per match.
That latter statistic is also the eighth-best return throughout Europe and the other members of the continent’s top ten show how important a characteristic expert dribbling truly is in the modern game – Lionel Messi, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez, Douglas Costa, Franco Vazquez and the highly-rated Sofiane Boufal to name a few. It’s a reflection of the winger’s technical ability, especially in close quarters, and is part of the reason I believe he could go on to ply his trade at a higher level. Everybody wants an attacker who can take defenders out of the game in an instant – especially if they can further embellish it with a consistent supply of goals and assists.
That’s not to discredit Vardy, who has been nothing short of superb over the last few months. But the fact Mahrez has been involved in almost as many goals as the England striker this season – 13 compared to 15 – despite being primarily considered part of the midfield, speaks volumes about the talismanic levels his performances have reached. One could even argue the Algerian’s influence has been more crucial than Vardy’s in Leicester’s rise to the second in the Premier League table – the 5 foot 10 striker ranks six places below his team-mate in WhoScored.com‘s chart of Europe’s top performers.
Likewise, whilst Vardy is already 28 years of age and firmly enjoying his peak, this feels like just the beginning for Mahrez. He’s still only 24 and amid the first top-flight campaign of his career in which he’s been a guaranteed starter; he’s still at the point where he can continue improving, almost by the game, simply through added experience and increasing confidence.
Of course, 14 games isn’t the largest or most convincing of samples, but if the winger can extend his performances until the end of the season Europe’s top clubs will be forced to take note. And whilst Vardy remains the current vogue, it’s his younger yet equally talismanic team-mate who represents the wiser long-term investment.