Much of Leicester City's less than ideal start to this season has been put down to the loss of N'Golo Kanté, or to a title hangover, or simply a regression to the mean. While most people agree that the chances of the Foxes repeating last season's stunning success were slim at best, I don't think too many anticipated them starting this season in quite so meek a fashion. There was the shocking defeat to Hull City on opening day, the flaccid 0-0 draw at home against Arsenal, the scrappy home win against Swansea City, and this last weekend they were absolutely played off the park at Anfield in a 4-1 loss to Liverpool. There are certainly many factors as to why Leicester have been so flat, but I would argue that the biggest reason lies with Riyad Mahrez, and fantasy players should be very concerned about him going forward.
In my humble opinion, Mahrez was the best player in the Premier League last season. With 17 goals and 11 assists to his name he also became the darling of fantasy teams everywhere. This season, however, his only goal in 4 games came from the penalty spot against Hull. He also missed a spot kick against Swansea and has 0 assists to his name at this point. It has not been a good start for the Algerian.
So why is he struggling so much? The answer is a complex one. Last season, Leicester thrived on the counter attack. They scored 5 goals on the break last season, the highest mark in the league. They attempted 72 long balls per game last season, 5th in the league. They attempted 282 short passes per game, 18th in the league. Leicester were a direct, pacy, deep lying team last season and Mahrez was at the heart of that strategy. His position as their creative outlet on the right hand side revolved around his speed, his incisive passing and crossing, and his ability to beat players off the dribble. He excelled in all of those areas last season.
Were you to glance at his numbers in those statistical categories this season as compared to last year, they look very similar but with a few key differences. The biggest elephant in the room is this; Mahrez is attempting roughly the same number of dribbles in a game (6.1 vs. 6.3 last season) but the difference in ratio of successful to unsuccessful take ons from last season to this is staggering. Last season Mahrez had 2.7 unsuccessful dribbles a game compared to 3.5 successful ones. This season? He has 1.8 successful and 4.3 unsuccessful. When you think about Mahrez as a player you think about this or this or this. His ability to skip past defenders or twist them in knots was key to his success. He's not doing that nearly as effectively through the first 4 games this year.
The other major difference in this season's Mahrez is his passing. Teams know more about Leicester now and have had a whole summer to devise ways in which to defend against them and part of that is to make Leicester play more with the ball. Their short passing numbers are up to 327 per game, an astonishing 45 more per game than 2015/16. And a huge chunk of that is down to Mahrez. Last season the winger attempted 25.2 short passes per game. This season he is averaging 36.8. That is a dramatic shift in style, especially when you consider that his long ball attempts are down this season by 0.8 per game. And despite this increase in his passing, his key passing/chance creation numbers are almost exactly the same (2 per game this season, 1.8 per game last season). All those extra passes evidently aren't amounting to much.
So what is causing this? A lot of it comes back to the point that teams are defending deeper against Leicester this season, forcing them to play more with the ball. Mahrez is Leicester's best creative force so it makes sense that his touches and passing numbers will go in the same direction as the team overall; when they have the ball, they like to give it to their star man... go figure. This uptick in possession and deeper lying opposition means that Leicester cannot be as direct and incisive as they were last year. It's not a style that plays to their strengths and could help to explain their toothless displays thus far.
More disturbing are the dribbling numbers as far as Mahrez is concerned. The opposition sitting deeper makes it very difficult for him to get into one on one situations on the break where he absolutely thrived last year. He is having to come deeper to get the ball and when he gets it, there are more players in front of him that he has to try and beat. Pushing him further back to get the ball also allows the defending team to bring extra defenders over to Mahrez and either win the ball from him or force him to pass it away. Against Hull he was constantly having to drop back close to, and sometimes beyond, the halfway line to get the ball and Hull made sure they always had defenders in front of him, preventing those one on ones he loves so much. Mahrez is a great player but he's not Andrea Pirlo, and he shouldn't be getting the ball at the base of the center circle in his own half.
The other tactic that we've seen neutralize Mahrez is to press the living daylights out of him. The concept is the same, either win the ball or make him pass it, but the likes of Liverpool pursued the Algerian much more aggressively. That left openings elsewhere for other Leicester players but none are at the same ability level as Mahrez. Every time he got the ball there were two or sometimes three red shirts closing him down almost immediately, the thinking being that if you take away his creativity, you greatly reduce Leicester's attacking threat. As a result, the Foxes were insipid in attack at Anfield and their only goal came through an absolute gift from Lucas Leiva. It should also be noted that Arsenal employed a similar tactic on Mahrez, and while Jamie Vardy did manage 3 goals in 2 games against them, the Gunners were the only team to do the double over the champions last season in no small part due to their ability to negate the threat of the Algerian.
Eventually Mahrez has to break out of this slump though, right? Wrong. Unless Leicester can find another creative outlet to take some of the burden off of their star wide man, teams are going to continue to target him specifically. The Foxes play a Burnley team this weekend that will absolutely sit deep and look for counter attacks as they did in their win over Liverpool. That means Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and co. will again have to play with lots of defenders in front of them and limited opportunities to utilize their devastating counter attack. Expect this trend to continue and, as crazy as it sounds, steer clear of Riyad Mahrez for your fantasy team.