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.
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 victory.
In the 16 Premier League games which have followed, Puel has guided the 2016 champions to seven victories and four draws, including a 2-2 result against United.
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 Héctor Bellerín to bomb down the right, like Mesut Özil and 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, with Leicester turning down an estimated £65million from Manchester City on deadline day, where he would have deputised for the injured Leroy Sané.
Yet, with the Algerian being AWOL ever since, that could perhaps push his price down when the window opens once again in the summer, as it is now clear he is desperate to leave.