Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez: the perfect partners never destined for the top

Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez: the perfect partners never destined for the top

This feature is part of Duology

Leicester City’s head of recruitment, Steve Walsh, cast a steely gaze over the Stade Océane. After travelling to northern France on his latest scouting quest, it seemed only right to begin his search in Normandy at Le Havre AC; the club’s famed academy having become something of a hotbed for young talent over recent years.

Having struck gold in the country’s second division not 18 months earlier, when the Foxes prized Anthony Knockaert away from Guingamp, Walsh was confident in his ability to pluck yet another nugget from lower echelons of French football. What he eventually unearthed, however, proved to be the rarest of gems.

Walsh exited the ground that evening with a spring in his step, the sparkle in his eye still gleaming. Not because his initial target, Ryan Mendes, had particularly dazzled, but because it was the first time he had the privilege of watching Riyad Mahrez play. 

Upon his return to the Midlands, Walsh was adamant that his employers must sign Mahrez, a man who, only 48 hours prior, hadn’t even registered on their radar. Manager Nigel Pearson and the rest of his coaching staff began to watch extensive video footage and, although impressed, couldn’t quite see what their colleague was eulogising about. Where they saw a scrawny winger sporting a blonde-tinted fringe and merely producing the odd stepover, Walsh saw magic. Nonetheless, the club moved for the midfielder in hope.

Mahrez was duly signed in January 2013 for £400,000, with his initial remit limited to supplying competition for first-choice wingers Knockaert and Lloyd Dyer. It made sense at the time; Leicester were sat atop the Championship table and looked well on course for their first stint back in the Premier League for a decade. The French-Algerian ostensibly needed time to settle into his new surroundings and there was no need to upset the apple cart by throwing him into the club’s starting XI hastily.

Mahrez has always been an introverted character and the move away from his homeland proved to be no different. He’d never even heard of Leicester City; his only previous knowledge of the Midlands metropolis came in the form of their rugby-playing counterparts, Leicester Tigers. Other than Knockaert, he seemed to have very little common ground with any of his new teammates, not least the loud, bubbly, energetic Jamie Vardy.

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Born and raised in Yorkshire, Vardy’s rise to stardom is a well-documented one. After being released by boyhood club Sheffield Wednesday aged 15, the striker cut his teeth on park pitches in England’s Sunday leagues. He worked in a carbon fibre plant and made a living through producing prosthetic limbs. Weekends were when he’d come alive, hassling and harrying defenders into mistakes, chasing down lost causes and rifling driven shots beyond the reach of keepers, all for the measly reward of £30-a-week. Pocket money.

It was in securing a move to Conference outfit Fleetwood Town that Vardy’s career began to take off. Racking up a sensational 31 goals in 36 league games, he caught the attention of English clubs from every division. In the end it was Leicester who swooped in, stealing a march on Ian Holloway’s Blackpool to secure the striker’s services for a non-league transfer record of £1m. Holloway later lambasted Leicester for scuppering the Tangerines’ deal, labelling it “ridiculous.”

Vardy endured a torrid first campaign, scoring just four goals in 26 Championship appearances. It seemed the sharp rise in playing standard was all too much too soon for him and many of his critics urged Leicester to sell their million-pound gamble. Vardy himself has even since admitted that he contemplated quitting the game altogether. Pearson, though, remained resilient. He knew Vardy had all the necessary qualities to spearhead his counter-attacking system and stuck to his guns the following season, starting him alongside Championship veteran David Nugent in a tried and tested 4-4-2 formation.

Pearson’s faith was rewarded when Vardy and Leicester began to redeem themselves – following the heartbreak of Watford and Troy Deeney’s injury-time playoff winner the season before – racing out of the blocks to take the 2014 Championship title by storm. Mahrez, too, had begun to settle at this point and showed glimpses of his otherworldly potential, not least when he cut in from the right to bend a sumptuous curling effort past Vardy’s old admirers, Blackpool, en route to a 3-1 victory; Leicester’s 13th league win amid a 21-match unbeaten run.

Premier League football beckoned for the Foxes and anticipation mounted ahead of both Vardy and Mahrez’s maiden First Division season. Struggle had been a recurring theme for both players on their journeys to England’s summit, and the season that followed proved to be no different. From mid-November to April, Leicester sat rooted to the bottom of the table; no club had ever spent longer in 20th position and managed to survive — until now.

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Pearson galvanised his troops and changed the system. A 3-4-1-2 was implemented with Mahrez moving into the hole behind Vardy and Argentine club-record signing Leonardo Ulloa. The tactical switch breathed new life into a weathered side and Mahrez’s creativity began to spark a revival. Leicester won seven of their nine remaining games to pull off the greatest of escapes. Vardy, benefitting from playing closer to Mahrez, scored more in his final eight games of the season than he’d mustered in the previous 30.

The summer saw Pearson sacked in disgrace when a good-will trip to Thailand – courtesy of Leicester’s Thai owners – was marred by some gross and unsavoury scenes from three youth academy players, one of which was Pearson’s son. Following the media frenzy, Claudio Ranieri was appointed his successor, much to the frustration of fans and pundits alike.

The Italian had always been a nearly man, coming within a whisker but ultimately failing to ever capture a top tier title. His recent woeful spell in charge of the Greek national team paid testament to his unfancied public perception. Still, Ranieri was keen to right a few wrongs and felt understandably emboldened by the obvious talents of Mahrez and Vardy. 

Known as the Tinkerman for his constant meddling in team selections, the coach vowed to go against type and denied his predisposed urges to change too much about his side. The only noticeable switch came in the form of reverting Leicester’s formation back to their customary 4-4-2. Mahrez was reinstated on the right of midfield whilst Vardy again led the line. It would be two new signings, however, in the form of N’Golo Kanté and Shinji Okazaki, that would allow Leicester’s attacking duo to truly set the league alight.

Both defensive masters in their own right, Okazaki pressed tirelessly from the front, helping his side win turnovers high up the pitch, whilst Kanté gave the illusion he played three positions, covering every blade of grass and taking the ball from anyone who dared to take him on. The workload put in each and every game by both would form the base upon which Mahrez and Vardy built a counter-attacking revelation.

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Leicester would suck teams in, luring them into a false sense of security, before breaking rapidly through Mahrez. The winger would then begin his merciless assault on the opposition goal, running at pace with the sort of close control that wouldn’t look out of place at the feet of Lionel Messi, before slipping through the blur that was Vardy, such was the striker’s speed of movement. Vardy had developed a supreme sense of awareness, his runs timed to perfection and his finishing clinical. Mahrez; Vardy; goal. It became standard protocol.

Two games against both colossal Manchester clubs perhaps encapsulated both players’ brilliance the best. Starting against United, as goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel gathered the ball from a corner and quickly offloaded it into the path of the marauding Christian Fuchs, Vardy began to make his move. Running across Ashley Young, he swerved in between both fullbacks before directing Fuchs where he wanted the pass. He outpaced the pair of defenders with ease and, timing his run expertly, bore down on the on-rushing David De Gea. With no time for his usual driven strike, Vardy instead simply cut the ball across the ‘keeper and into the bottom corner. The King Power Stadium erupted.

He wheeled away in celebration, chest puffed, fingers directing attention towards himself and his miraculous achievement. The former factory worker had just scored for the 11th consecutive Premier league game, an all-time English record. As his teammates ran to join in the wild celebrations, Martin Tyler’s voice rang in the ears of everyone watching at home: “It’s 11, it’s heaven for Jamie Vardy! Hold the back page, hold the front page, a Leicester player has smashed the record!”

Tyler’s second line spoke of the sheer disbelief that Leicester were competing in this environment, at the top of the league, and doing so with such style. This was a year in which Leicester were boldly redefining the realms of possibility within the English game, fronted by the attacking exploits of Vardy and Mahrez. It was the latter, though, that helped his club cross the boundary from disbelief to reality.

Taking on Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, many expected this to be the moment Leicester’s bubble finally burst. Even when they led 1-0 at the break, it still felt as though the world was waiting for the Manchester floodgates to open. Step forward Riyad Mahrez.

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Having drifted over to the left-hand side, the Algerian collected the ball from Kanté. Sensing the impending danger, Nicolás Otamendi lunged in, desperate to bring him down. Mahrez nonchalantly scooped the ball over the Argentine’s flailing limbs and began to run at Martín Demichelis. A few step-overs later and Demichelis had been sent for a hot dog, leaving Mahrez to stroke the ball past a bewildered Joe Hart and double Leicester’s lead. If people didn’t believe, they did now.

Leicester would go on to achieve the grandest accomplishment in the history of the Premier League, winning the title from wildly improbable 5000/1 odds. Vardy netted 24 times, cementing himself in the England national squad, while Mahrez comfortably produced double figures in both goals and assists, winning the Premier League Player of the Year to boot, becoming the first ever African to do so. 

The pair would go onto prove themselves on the European stage too, reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, standing tall as the last remaining English team in the competition.

To realise their innumerable impact on Leicester, you need look no further than one statistic: between them, the duo have outscored every player in the squad combined over the past three seasons. Adversity may have been a common trend throughout their careers, but so has flying spiritedly in its face.

Vardy was “too short” for Sheffield Wednesday, Mahrez “too skinny” for PSG, but rejection only made them stronger. The combination of Mahrez’s trickery and Vardy’s pace, blended with a near-telepathic connection, pushed both players onto heights they could only have previously dreamed of and cemented their places in the annals of the game.

You may have seen better duos – technically, tactically and mentally – but what you won’t have seen before is two individuals from such disparate backgrounds, coming together so emphatically to disrupt the establishment of world football. From the Parisian suburbs and the fields of Yorkshire, this unlikely pair combined to produce a once in a lifetime miracle.

By Charlie Carmichael @CharlieJC93

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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