Arsenal vs Leicester: 'I won't lie, I didn't expect us to be first,' says Riyad Mahrez

But now Riyad Mahrez has experienced life at the summit with Leicester, he wants to stay there. Kevin Garside meets the ‘too small’, £400,000 winger who has spent his entire career defying expectations and now has his eyes on the big prize

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The Independent Football

It was as close to a royal visit as a Leicester secondary school might receive, Riyad Mahrez, a Premier League prince if ever there were one, ghosting into the reception of Wigston Academy as if it were the opposition box. Lookouts combed the car park for his arrival, and then, almost undetected, there he was before us, walking nimbly through the doors, prompting staff and clipboard-carrying attendants to shift urgently into gear. 

This is how it must have felt at the Etihad last Saturday, with Mahrez seemingly too distant to warrant the interest of the Manchester City defence. In the drop of a shoulder and a swivel of those snake hips he had slipped Nicolas Otamendi’s chop tackle, mugged Martin Demichelis and made magic with a stunning 15th goal of the season.

Surprisingly, he did not rank it among his best when asked by the Wigston posse to choose a personal favourite. That would be the one at home against Chelsea that left Cesar Azpilicueta with motion sickness so thoroughly was he twisted inside out. Observing Mahrez before a class of excited adolescents, you are reminded how slight a frame he inhabits, like a stripe on a blanket as my father used  to say, and also how little  that matters. 

He arrived at Leicester in January 2014 unknown and with only a rudimentary grasp of the language. Two years on he is married to an English wife, has become a father and has acquired a tidy grasp of the English football corpus to boot. It takes a particular kind of character to make familiar all that is strange, to embrace change with the kind of desire Mahrez demonstrates so readily on a football pitch. Perhaps it was a youth spent in France being told he was not big enough to make it that hardened his resolve. 

“It’s funny. I never listened to them. I never gave up,” he says when the schoolkids have dispersed. “I always had confidence in my quality. I was always positive and I always had good objectives. I’ve always played this way. I believe you are born with a talent, and it is even better if you work hard. At the moment it works for me.”

This might be the modus operandi of the whole Leicester operation, something he touches on as he reflects on this unique inversion of the Premier League narrative that has those below stairs threatening to take over the house. “It has helped me at times like the beginning of the season, when everyone was saying Leicester were going down into the Championship, and that last year we were lucky to stay up, but that only gives us more power, more motivation to do well.”

Having smashed Liverpool and City in the space of five days, Leicester travel to Arsenal tomorrow for the third leg of a sequence that was thought would determine their capacity to sustain an unprecedented title ride. Mahrez betrays a sense of the growing confidence within the group, fostered by a coach with a Henry V dimension few suspected he had.

Forget the benign exterior of the avuncular Claudio, Ranieri gets them at it with his Agincourt speeches, moving among his troops, rousing them to raise the Leicester standard across the Premier League. “On the training ground he does shout a lot – ‘Come on, Riyad!’ He is somebody who works hard and wants his players to work. Everybody in the club works. He gives us a lot of aggressive thoughts, motivation. He pumps us up and gives us a lot of power. He helps us concentrate and focus.

Riyad Mahrez admits he would have snapped your hand off if you had offered Leicester City, who face Arsenal tomorrow, fourth spot at the start of the season. Now... he’s not so sure

“He is a coach who is not satisfied to finish 15th, in the middle. He always wants to compete near the top, whether he has finished second, third or fourth, that shows he is someone who deserved to be working [at this level]. I think he has taken all the best things from his experience of working with lots of different players, and he has brought out the best in each one of us.”

Ranieri the uber coach – who’d have thought it? His stint with Greece at the back end of 2014, which included the seismic loss to the Faroe Islands, did for his credibility as a front-line warrior. It ended with the sack, of course, as did his nine preceding engagements. At best Ranieri was seen as a nice bloke, always one step away from the big prize. At 64 there is a career of not finishing first fuelling the inner fire. Little, according to Mahrez, escapes his attention as he refines and tweaks, tinkers his way towards nirvana. 

Arsenal v Leicester: all the talking points

“Usually he will tell me about the good things I have done, or tell me I did a good job for the team, but sometimes he will start with the bad things, even if I have scored. He might say I was good with the ball offensively but I needed to do more work on the defensive side, and you always know he is there on the touchline. If there were no fans in the stadium, you would be able to hear him every day for sure.”

The contribution of Mahrez to Leicester’s goals scored column is second only to Jamie Vardy’s. In terms of his overall effort he might just offer the greater value, since his goals are only part of the equation. The 10 assists he also boasts demonstrate his importance. 

It was his typically mazy run at the City defence in the first minute of the match at the Etihad that earned the free-kick, taken by him, that led directly to Robert Huth’s guerrilla strike.

After the opening 10 minutes or so he was slightly lost in the hurly-burly of City’s rugged response, inviting criticism from the boss at half-time, no doubt. Whatever Ranieri said, it worked. Within 10 minutes of the restart Mahrez had taken the game away from City as only he can,  combining vision, touch and sweet timing. At the end of the game the players gathered in a huddle, an expression of the unity binding a squad that seems to get better the greater the demand. 

There is no fear heading to the Emirates, just a controlled energy, an understanding that if they continue to trust the methods and work ethic that have taken them this far, then good might come of it. 

“We beat City and Liverpool, not easy games. Arsenal will be very difficult because now they know us. Maybe before, all the teams say Leicester are going to drop points, Leicester are going to lose, but now they are taking us seriously so they will be ready. If we beat them it will be a good thing but we go there trying to play a good game and see what happens.

“It is good to play against big teams because they have the best players. This year we have done well against them. We enjoy it, especially when you win. Where we are now is just a bonus. We just take it each game at a time. We just have to treat every game like that and work hard. We have 13 games left. We are in a good position but can’t talk about the title yet. Everyone speaks about this but there is a long way to go. We can compete for the title but City, Arsenal, every year they are there. They know the pressure, everything. For us this is the first time for all the players in our team so I think the others have an advantage.”

Mahrez, with Vardy, must rank among the finds of the Premier League epoch. He chuckles at the comparison with City’s £50m-plus playmakers Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, who are worth 125 and 137 times respectively the £400,000 Leicester paid for the Algerian player of the year two years ago. “Yes, I saw that. Those are two good players. It’s funny.”

Riyad Mahrez celebrating one of his 15 goals for Leicester City this season

Like the majority of pearls in this team, Mahrez was acquired during the reign of Nigel Pearson, an irascible figure when viewed from afar but a coach he much admires and to whom he is grateful for the sensitivity shown in the early months of his stay when fitness and communication were not what they might have been.  

“Nigel was very good with me. He knew I didn’t speak much English so he spoke more slowly to me and he tried to teach me good things as well. It was difficult in the beginning but now it’s OK. He brought all the players of the team – maybe apart from a few. Obviously he has credit – even now if we finish sixth or seventh he deserves credit because he built this team. He didn’t have the luck to carry on with this team but he deserves credit.”

Sixth or seventh? Away with you, Riyad. Even fourth would be a disappointment now, which takes Mahrez into territory he never thought he would experience at Leicester. “I am not going to lie. I didn’t expect to be first in the Premier League. I expected when I came to win the Championship then go up with this team and play in the Premier League. Did I expect to be first now? No.


“My ambition now is to finish good with my club the best position we can. If we can go in the Champions League it would be good as well. That’s it, that’s my ambition. To be honest, when you are first like now if you finish fourth we would be a little disappointed. Before the season started if you said to me Leicester’s going to finish fourth, sign this now – I’d say OK and sign. Now we are first and we want to stay there if we can.”

Riyad Mahrez was supporting the biggest grassroots football tournament in the country, the PlayStation Schools’ Cup. Since its launch, more than 150,000 players have been involved. Visit