The Premier League, as it often does, got a little more top heavy today, after a successful-yet-pragmatic club sold its most valuable player to an elite team that didn’t really need him. Riyad Mahrez—Leicester City’s more beautiful, playmaking compliment to their relentless striker Jamie Vardy—has left the club where he became a legend by helping lead his squad to perhaps the most stunning championship season in all of sports ever. Manchester City, already giants of England and soon Europe too, acquired him in a transfer for £60 million.
This is overkill, obviously. While the Champions League trophy eluded City thanks to the work of Mo Salah and Liverpool, this was still a flawless Premier League team in 2017-18—one of the best of all time. And even if there is room for improvement, it certainly isn’t in the opponent’s half of the pitch, where any increased firepower in the roster bumps up against the law of diminishing returns. The five-ish starting creative and attacking players on Manchester City last season could have included any combination of Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, and İlkay Gündoğan.
Is Mahrez, the PFA Player Of The Year in 2016, actually even good enough to slot ahead of at least three of those guys on a regular basis? Maybe! David Silva, in particular, is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and often plays in Mahrez’s favored position at the right hand of the striker. But Sané, Sterling, and Bernardo Silva are all comfortable at that spot, younger than Mahrez, and have more experience playing for manager Pep Guardiola. Mahrez is a brilliant passer, but he’s not better than Kevin De Bruyne. He’s a major threat to score, but not more so than at least three of City’s more specialized attackers. He still has plenty of seasons to offer at 27 years old, but his best one came almost for sure in 2015-16. In the long-term scope of this club, Mahrez is nothing more than an emergency band-aid.
However, it’s hard to really blame anyone involved for this move. Long before the transfer actually became official, Mahrez was making no secret of his desire to leave Leicester, and it’s perfectly fine for him—having achieved everything he could have dreamed of with his now-former club—to want more exposure, a chance to prove himself further, and the possibility of Europe’s top prize.
Leicester, for their part, sold extraordinarily high on a dude they picked up out of the French second division in 2014. And smartly reinvesting the money from these kinds of massive transfers—rather than holding onto key players against their will—is how the “best of the rest” clubs thrive in their own way. Manchester City, meanwhile, is still stuck with the pressure to grow despite their successes. Even though City have already reached dizzying heights in the domestic competition, they’re not yet Barcelona or Real Madrid or even Bayern Munich, and while adding Mahrez doesn’t change that fact, it certainly doesn’t make them any worse. And since money is no object for this team, they might as well go for it.
Still, this is all kind of depressing—a very talented star leaving the club where he’s an immortal in order to be an unspecial supporting player on an already established juggernaut. Mahrez’s potential role at Manchester City could echo something like James Rodriguez at Madrid—an undeniable talent who is also completely redundant on his team’s roster. But even if he does find solid playing time and make important contributions to his new team, the final break-up of a core Leicester group that shocked and thrilled the whole world only a couple of years ago is a sad thing. With Manchester City’s ascendance, and the continued domination of one or two clubs in all the other major leagues around Europe, the idea of a middle-class team making an unbelievable underdog run already feels like such a faint memory.