London – Odd as it might sound given the strange, clamorous dealings of the last week, the sense of a very public meat-exchange taking place somewhere just out of sight, the Premier League transfer window doesn’t actually open until next month.
Not that you’d know it right now. Manchester United already seem to be covering themselves by simply trying to sign all the footballers, immediately, all the time. Three weeks before the window actually opens Virgil van Dijk is sitting outside St Mary’s in his car looking sad with a bunch of petrol station carnations and a card that says “Sorry” on the back seat. Meanwhile Romelu Lukaku is doing a decent job of convincing everyone he’s one of the most valuable footballers in the world, if only by weight of constant, self-regarding repetition, like the boy at school who gets to be captain because he’s got a really good pair of boots and he keeps going on about how he might have a trial with Norwich.
In the middle of which the fact Riyad Mahrez is still on the market has perhaps got a little bit lost. Yes, really, that Riyad Mahrez. Remember him? It is a week now since Mahrez announced in a sensational heartfelt open letter that he no longer wanted to play for Leicester City, a sensational heartfelt open letter that will have been tucked away safely in the No-Shit-Sherlock file by anyone who witnessed his appearances on the field of play last season.
There have been plenty of noises off so far. The assumption is that some kind of deal has been half-done, or various deals raised and tendered. Mahrez has been linked with Arsenal, Chelsea and Monaco. One newspaper raised the prospect of an “amazing move” to Barcelona. Although when you think about it this wouldn’t be that amazing, given his genuine, sui generis brilliance two seasons ago.
And this is the point about Mahrez. He was, lest we forget, Leicester’s best player when they won the league. He was a genuine force in their Champions League run. He remains a lovely, louche, slouching little wedding cake figurine of a footballer. Mahrez can dribble, shoot, pass, track back and make and score goals. His touch has the precision, the alluring sense of cruelty of the very best, even when he’s ambling around the pitch looking like a disappointed minor eastern European royal, sixth in line to the throne of Syldavia out on a particularly tedious public walkabout in the crumbling city centre tiergarten.
Mahrez is in a sense one of our own, a domestic success story, from Championship to title-winning player of the year. And yet you get the feeling he might still end up being appreciated a little more outside the Premier League. Lionel Messi is a fan. Atlético Madrid’s players kept calling Mahrez “a craque” before their quarter-final in the spring. Whereas in England there is a sense Mahrez has been pushed a little to the back of things. The idea of a slightly effete one-season wonder has gained a surprising degree of traction.
No doubt Mahrez’s style is a part of this, a footballer so casual in his movements at times you expect to look down and notice he’s played the last 60 minutes in espadrilles and a linen safari suit. Even at his best Mahrez doesn’t so much run as mooch purposefully on legs so thin they resemble a single standard leg split in half, swaying like a dandelion stem one way, then gliding off in another direction entirely.
Some say Mahrez has only one trick, the one where he dummies on his left foot, cuts inside, dummies again, then dummies again. But what a trick it is – all the trick you’ll ever really need, based on the ability to stop and start quicker than any other person on the pitch, a miracle of power-to-weight ratio, and a unique kind of creative physicality, swaying and bending and feinting with a range of movements that are all his own.
The word “player” can sound slightly silly in football. Professionals don’t “play” football. They enact football. They process it. Sergio Ramos inflicts football. Mahrez is a player though, all inventiveness and gaiety of movement, with an obvious connection to the teenage street footballer who had to be told to stop kicking a ball around after midnight on the streets of his housing estate in Sarcelles, in the Paris suburbs.
It is hard to think of the last time English football threw up a player like this. Chris Waddle perhaps, who had the same mix of precision and swaying, feinting invention. Mahrez also reminds me of the great Djalminha, a mid-range Brazilian of the 1990s who during his time in La Liga could score or make a goal of such insolence it just made you want to laugh.
Mahrez sails against other kinds of modern trends, the bulked up, hard-running game of sprints and hustle. Hand-picked by Leicester’s scouts for his difference, the counterpoint of his technique and grace in a very physical league, he still gets tired. He was said to be exhausted towards the end of the title-winning season. But then this is exactly the kind of player English football doesn’t usually produce, or nurture, or garland with honours; and to whom it should perhaps be offering a little grace, a margin for failure.
Hopefully Mahrez will stay in the Premier League. Arsène Wenger has been spotted striding around the south of France with £150m in his hand looking flushed and bothered, like a man attaching himself slightly desperately to the end of the office conga line. He really could do much worse than sign Mahrez, who has the precision and the playful high-grade invention Arsenal have missed in the absence of Santi Cazorla. More than this Mahrez represents something else, a reminder that in between the collisions and the managed forms things such as invention and artistry, the outsider with a trick can still bloom and thrive and inspire.
The Guardian Sport