It was only Claude Puel’s fourth game in charge when Leicester City were held 1-1 by West Ham United at the London Stadium. Far from a disappointing result, especially for a team who had only won three games before November’s fixture.
Riyad Mahrez came off the pitch a frustrated figure. The Algerian international was removed after 70 minutes, replaced by Ben Chilwell, but the newly installed French boss tried to turn it into a positive.
“I think he was a little frustrated in the second half without the possibility to touch more balls and to play,” he said after the game.
“It’s a good thing when a player is not happy but now it’s important to help him have more consistency once again because he is an important player for us and it’s important he can play on his part of the pitch with all his qualities.”
It was only the second time this season the Foxes had controlled possession of the ball, ending the game with 50.7 per cent, but with 44 touches, it was one of Mahrez’s least influential performances.
Playing against Manchester United and Arsenal earlier in the campaign, with less than 40 per cent of the ball in each game, the former Le Havre winger made 58 and 63 touches respectively.
In order to get the best out of the forward, you need him on the ball and he needs space to fashion chances off the flank.
Life Before Puel
Before Puel’s arrival, Leicester were averaging 1.3 goals per game, creating 6.66 chances and their average possession was down at 46 per cent.
After nine games, including one with Michael Appleton in charge, they had won just twice – Craig Shakespeare involved in just one.
In the 13 Premier League games which have followed, Puel has guided the 2016 champions to six victories and three draws, including a 2-2 result against Man United.
His team has scored 22 times, that’s an increase up to 1.69 goals per game. They are creating an extra chance per game on average and their possession has jumped up to 49 per cent. It may not seem a lot, but moving an average up by three per cent takes a huge turnaround.
Including the win away at Newcastle where they finished with 62.2 per cent of the ball, they have controlled possession in seven in Puel’s 13 games in charge.
The recent defeats to Watford and Liverpool may not show it, but the run of four wins under the former Nice boss has pushed the Foxes up the table and Mahrez return to form has been a huge reason for their success.
How has Puel improved Mahrez
There have been no major formation changes from the 56-year-old, until recently he had even stuck to the 4-4-1-1 which had served the team so well. Now, 4-2-3-1 has taken over.
One of the biggest changes has been the way Puel uses Mahrez and its roots are very much born across the channel in Ligue 1.
4-2-3-1 is used heavily in all aspects of French football, from the youth set-up to Ligue 1. Rarely do you find right or left-footed wingers playing with their strong foot on the touchline.
They are almost always inverted. There are exceptions, Thomas Lemar at Monaco is one, but the likes of Arsenal transfer target Malcom, Sofiane Boufal when he played at Lille, even Bernardo Silva before his move to Manchester City, all were asked to cut inside onto their strong foot and were allowed to find areas of space in the middle of the park.
In an effort to get him on the ball in the most affective positions, the French-born forward has also been played just behind Jamie Vardy as the support striker.
It worked against Everton, with Mahrez picking up an assist in Puel’s opening win, but the West Ham performance was a disappointment.
What has made his transformation work, is not a change in position, but a change in tact from the team and Puel’s move to offer his sensational winger more freedom to roam the final third.
Playing against Arsenal in the opening day of the new campaign, Mahrez started on the right of the 4-4-1-1 and you can see from his touchmap below, most of his work came hugging the touchline.
Fast forward to the game against Everton and Puel’s debut, the areas Mahrez gets control of the ball are much more spread across the pitch. You would be hard-pushed to pick out exactly where he is playing from this graphic.
It was the same against Burnley too. He started on the right of the 4-4-1-1, but the attack played very narrow and Mahrez was allowed to position himself where he saw fit.
Recently, Puel has moved to 4-2-3-1 and Mahrez’s role on the right suits him far better. It has also brought out an improvement in Demerai Gray’s form.
The Algerian is key though. Since their new boss arrived, Mahrez has played 13 times and scored six times compared to just one before the arrival of the French coach.
He is creating more chances on average, he is actually attempting fewer dribbles, but completing a higher percentage. Plus, his shot accuracy has gone up from 36 per cent to 84 per cent, making him one of the most clinical forwards in England and is due to the more central areas of the pitch he is now taking up.
How Mahrez would benefit Liverpool and Arsenal
Neither the Gunners or Jürgen Klopp play the same formation as Leicester. Over at Anfield, Mohamed Salah is enjoying the best football of his career coming off the right-flank to play more of an inside forward.
You could argue he and Mahrez would struggle to co-exist, but the Algerian has shown he can play a similar role and could help the Egyptian play more centrally, in a loose 4-4-2. With Sadio Mané on the left, thus, making up for Liverpool’s loss of Philippe Coutinho.
For Arsenal, Mahrez is the ideal replacement for Alexis Sánchez. He can play off the striker in the 3-4-2-1 formation, taking advantage of a free role through the centre, or he could continue on the right of an attacking midfield three when Arsène Wenger reverts to a back four.
Letting the Algerian push inside then creates space for Hector Bellerin to bomb down the right, like what Mesut Özil or Alex Iwobi have done already.
The bad news for both clubs is the upturn in form from Mahrez and the explosion in the transfer market makes it very difficult to land him for the £50million quoted in the summer.
“I want to keep all my best players and Riyad is an important player in the team for us,” admitted Puel, despite the speculation of Mahrez’s departure.
“When I discussed things with him, he had a good attitude and is enjoying his football. He is a happy player and likes to play with his teammates.
“His statistics have improved, with assists and scoring. Of course I want him to continue all this good work.”
The Algerian’s stock is on the rise once again and Leicester are reaping the rewards. He is destined to leave eventually, but not before Puel and the Foxes are ready to see him go.