Premier League

Riyad to Rachid: meet the Foxes new recruit aiming to fill Mahrez's boots

 • by Matt Gault
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Leicester City can never claim that they didn’t have ample time to plan for Riyad Mahrez’s departure.

The skilful Algerian, whose mesmeric performances captured Foxes fans’ hearts and guided the club to that historic Premier League triumph in 2016, was heavily linked with Manchester City over the last two transfer windows before finally joining the champions this summer.

Pep Guardiola’s side ended their interest in January after baulking at Leicester’s astronomical £95million valuation of the former PFA Player of the Year. However, although the Foxes managed to retain Mahrez’s services until the end of the 2017/18 season, it always seemed as though City’s interest would rear its head once more.

Thankfully, there was no messing around this time. Mahrez joined Guardiola’s star-studded attacking line-up for £60million. The deal was confirmed on July 10, giving the Foxes plenty of time to land the winger’s successor.

As it were, they plumped for Mahrez’s fellow countryman Rachid Ghezzal, who arrived at the King Power Stadium for a reported £10million fee, a mere fraction of the sum the club received from City.

Of course, Ghezzal is not the only eye-catching attacking acquisition made by Claude Puel this summer, with James Maddison joining from Norwich City for £22million. At 21, big things are expected of the England U21 international but comparisons to Mahrez will almost certainly be reserved for Ghezzal.

That’s understandable. Ghezzal is a tricky Algerian winger who enjoys cutting in from the right wing and using his favoured left foot.

But fans should temper their expectations.

Lighting up Lyon

Ghezzal burst onto the scene in France with Lyon in 2016. Having been frozen out by Hubert Fournier, Ghezzal flourished under Bruno Genesio, lighting up a stadium just a few hundred metres away from where he was brought up.

The fleet-footed Algerian shone on the right wing of Genesio’s 4-3-3, ending the season with eight goals and as many assists as Lyon qualified for the Champions League. At that point, having attracted flattering comparisons to Arjen Robben due to his proclivity for cutting inside onto his left foot, Ghezzal’s progress reverberated beyond France, with the player frequently popping up among Arsenal transfer rumours.

During the 2016/17 campaign, however, Ghezzal spent a significant amount of time out of the line-up following Nabil Fekir’s return to fitness. As Les Gones’ most talented playmaker, Fekir’s inclusion was non-negotiable but to accommodate him Genesio switched back to a 4-2-3-1, which impacted Ghezzal’s progression.

Last summer, he joined Lyon’s Ligue 1 rivals Monaco. Again, while there were glimpses of Ghezzal’s abilities, he struggled to replicate the blistering form that briefly made him a hero at Lyon.

His creative influence didn’t always shine through under Leonardo Jardim, averaging just 0.81 open play key passes per 90 (ranking him 79th).

A solitary year in the principality yielded just two goals and three assists, so he perhaps has a point to prove as he embarks on life in England. Mahrez, in stark contrast, arrived at Leicester completely under the radar, plucked from France’s second-tier and ready to take the Premier League by storm.

As illustrated by Football Whispers‘ player comparison persona below, Ghezzal and Mahrez are stylistically very similar. Whereas Mahrez tended the cross the ball more for Leicester last season, his compatriot was more inclined to dribble.

Ghezzal’s defensive contributions are more prominent, too, which is perhaps one of the attributes which attracted Puel to him (Ghezzal managed 2.89 tackles per 90 last season, a strikingly high average for a forward-thinking winger).

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Having fallen out of favour under Jardim at Monaco, Ghezzal has been handed an opportunity to turn his career around in the Premier League.

Unfortunately for him, expectations are high. Naturally, Mahrez will be the yardstick against which Ghezzal will be measured. His predecessor’s output last season – 12 goals and ten assists last season – will be difficult to emulate but the new recruit will have the chance to make an impression against none other than Manchester United in the opening game of the season.

Should Ghezzal score against the Red Devils on Friday night and become an instant Foxes hero under the lights at the King Power Stadium, it could be the kickstart he needs as he sets about trying to become the second nimble Algerian winger to cast a spell on Leicester fans.

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