It is enough to induce pangs of nostalgia in Leicester. Two of their Unbelievables combined for a couple of goals. Or perhaps not quite how they remembered. For starters, Danny Drinkwater and Riyad Mahrez are team-mates no more. Their reunion was a 79-minute affair, curtailed by Drinkwater’s substitution. It felt like a mercy killing by Dean Smith, putting him out of his misery.
Because there are unfortunate first impressions and then there is Drinkwater’s disastrous debut. Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 6. If it was an embarrassment orchestrated in part by an old ally, it also illustrated the fleeting, almost freakish nature of Leicester’s 2016 glory. It was forged by men like Mahrez, whose talent is equipping him to flourish in a City side capable of magnificence, and Drinkwater, the immortal turned misfit. They were twinned in glorious achievement but have been separated by subsequent fortunes. Paths have diverged. Mahrez is now on the right track at City. Drinkwater seems on the road to nowhere.
Mahrez swayed past him all too easily for his first goal, Drinkwater making an apology of a challenge. His second came when his former team-mate was caught in possession by David Silva. He was slow to react, as if surprised to be on the ball in his own box. Or, indeed, surprised to be on the pitch.
His 2018-19 consisted of half an hour against City in the Premier League. His 2019-20 had brought 59 minutes in the division, also against City, but in a different Claret and Blue. Drinkwater inadvertently set up a Will Grigg goal on his Burnley debut, a 3-1 defeat to League One Sunderland. He inadvertently set up a Mahrez goal on his Villa bow, a 6-1 defeat to City. He used to be Jamie Vardy’s supply line. Now he creates goals for the opposition.
But more often than not, he is paid in excess of £100,000 a week to do nothing. He was a spectator under Maurizio Sarri. He has been loaned out, first to Burnley and then Villa. Drinkwater won the Premier League in 2016. He has not won a game in the Premier League since 2017. If his rise and fall suggests he had some kind of Faustian pact, it also reflects the catalytic qualities of N’Golo Kante; Steve Walsh’s old line that Leicester played three in midfield, with Kante either side of Drinkwater, concealed a truth: take Kante away and Drinkwater has been stripped of the petrol to fuel him.
Certainly there was no energy when he laboured in pursuit of Kevin de Bruyne for City’s third goal; rustiness is a reason but it does not amount to a guarantee he will continue to deputise for the injured John McGinn in the Villa midfield. The benched Marvelous Nakamba may not be a case of nominative determinism, but he isn’t this bad.
“Danny Drinkwater will make us a better team,” said a bullish Smith. “He started the game well.” Which was a generous assessment of a man who partly at fault for two goals inside 25 minutes. In a way, Drinkwater’s travails exacerbate the achievement of Leicester’s unlikely lads. Some have gone on to excel since then: Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel at the King Power Stadium, Kante for Chelsea and France and, more recently, Mahrez for a different City. By the very highest standards, others were one-season wonders, footballing everymen who did the extraordinary. Danny Simpson is now in the lower half of the Championship. Shinji Okazaki rarely scores in Spain’s second tier. Robert Huth has retired. Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs and Marc Albrighton are understudies.
That stunning season was an outlier for the 5000/1 outsiders, and not merely because Leicester won the league with a points tally Liverpool could beat with 10 games to go. Mahrez was voted the best player in the country by his fellow professionals in 2016. He has not reached such heights again. Sometimes his fate to be the second- or third-best player on the pitch, which can be an occupational hazard for any team-mate of De Bruyne’s.
And yet he belongs. He was a bit-part player for much of his debut campaign at City. Now he is a reason the injured Leroy Sane has rarely been missed, a man who has facilitated Raheem Sterling’s seemingly permanent relocation to the left. He was outstanding at Old Trafford on Tuesday; with goals against Chelsea, Leicester and United this season, he has ascended to the ranks of the big-game player. A brace at Villa may not qualify as such, but it showed he is in rare form.
“The difference last season and this season is he plays more minutes because the manager is so kind to him,” said Pep Guardiola. “Always I have the feeling he can score a goal. He has incredible quality with his physicality. You see his legs it is impossible to be injured because he has no muscles.” If that makes Mahrez a medical marvel, the muscle-less man, the broader problem is that Drinkwater has been stripped of the powers that helped him achieve something special.
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