Claude Puel Faces Managerial Litmus Test In Trying To Sort Out Mahrez Mess

Claude Puel Faces Managerial Litmus Test In Trying To Sort Out Mahrez Mess

Tuesday, 6 February, 2018 - 09:15
How Riyad Mahrez reacts to the disappointment of not joining Manchester City could define the second half of the season for Leicester City. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Action Images via Reuters
London - Paul MacInnes
They say the modern manager has to be all things to all people. He has to have a vision but be pragmatic, be a tactician but also a motivator. He must have authority but remain approachable, accommodating to fragile egos but also an unflinching disciple of discipline. And if you think that sounds a tricky balance to strike, the January transfer window just made things a lot more complicated.

Consider Claude Puel. The Leicester City manager is now fully responsible for the consequences of Manchester City’s unsuccessful attempt to pluck Riyad Mahrez from the King Power Stadium. The player wanted the move and did everything he could to make it happen. His club would only consider a transfer at £95m and City failed to reach that valuation. A “friend” of the Algerian was reported by Sky Sports as saying the player is “depressed” and has been told the only way to leave the club is to “go to war”. How precisely does Puel handle that?

The Frenchman’s first remarks on the matter were that he hoped Mahrez would return to the squad “with a smile”. A lot depends on that. According to the “friend”, Mahrez has wanted to leave Leicester for the past four transfer windows. On each occasion, and especially last summer, he has reacted to the disappointment by focusing on his football. If Puel can persuade him to do that once more so many considerations will be left moot.

There are other ways it might pan out though as other recent examples of big players denied a “dream move” show. There’s the Alexis Sánchez, which combines a willingness to play with an equal willingness to alienate your team-mates. There’s the Virgil van Dijk, which follows a prolonged absence from the team with a series of substandard performances. And the Philippe Coutinho, which maintains both performance and haranguing of the club hierarchy until you’re finally allowed to leave.

Last summer Arsène Wenger shared his thoughts on how future transfers might pan out. On being asked about Sánchez’s Emirates future for roughly the millionth time, the old sage replied: “In the future you will see players going to the end of their contract more and more. Why? Because transfers become so high, even for normal players, that no one will want to pay the amount of money that is demanded. I am convinced that in the next 10 years it will become usual.”

There are other ways of framing Wenger’s argument; for example, clubs might also choose to run down a player’s contract because they can’t find a suitable replacement. Maybe they will hope the situation changes in six months. But several factors, from inflation in transfer fees and wages to an increase in Premier League revenues (ostensibly lessening the necessity of clubs to sell players to make ends meet) suggest the Arsenal boss may be proven right.

Meanwhile the motivations for players remain the same: glory and/or an enhanced contract. So let’s imagine a future where the star player at each Premier League club is always agitating for a move, from the moment the ink has dried on his new contract. What happens then? Well, it falls back on to the manager to be even more dextrous than before. Along with a sporting director (far from the continental complication of old, surely now an essential role for all top flight clubs), they must maximise current performance and effect the most advantageous transfer deal, whenever it might arise. They will have to conceive of the player as both staying and leaving at the same time. It will be like Schrödinger’s cat but for want-away wingers.

Each calculation will be different, just like each individual. It could be that Mahrez will adopt a different approach to previous rejections. The fact he was not at training on Thursday may be an example of this. From here on Puel will have to devise a new strategy to get the best from his squad’s greatest talent while maximising his value in the market. It’s an unenviable task with an unknown outcome. All that’s certain is the clock ticking towards another transfer window.

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