The Premier League Isn't The Best In The World, But It's The Strongest

Riyad Mahrez has struggled to recapture the magic of last season, but he’s not alone in dealing with the second-year syndrome that plagues EPL holders.

After appearing a shadow of his former self throughout the season, particularly over a wretched three-month period stretching from early December through late February when Wes Morgan outscored him by plundering a goal against Derby County,  Riyad Mahrez sprang to life with a magical and all-important goal against Hull City on Saturday.

After twisting and turning at the top of the box, the Algerian scored his fourth goal of the Premier League season, lifting Leicester City five points clear of the relegation zone in the process.

The obvious question is where the hell has this been? He was unstoppable last year, scoring 17 goals and laying on 11 assists, but his atrocious play this season extended as far as being relieved of penalty duties after failing to convert from the spot against Aston Villa and Bournemouth, costing Leicester four points.

Is it post-championship ennui, an inability to self-motivate after accomplishing one of the greatest achievements in the history of football? Did offers from other clubs over the summer interest him before signing a new four-year contract in August, and did he regret that decision as early as September when Leicester had already lost three matches?

Mahrez springing to life with only 11 matches remaining has shades of Eden Hazard’s performance last year. After guiding Chelsea to the title in 2014-15 with 14 goals and garnering the Player of the Season award, Hazard’s form plummeted the following season. 

It wasn’t until April that Hazard suddenly shifted, scoring a brace against Bournemouth, a remarkable goal against Tottenham that gave the title to Leicester and a goal against Liverpool.

 

But this trend doesn’t stop there. One need only look to the immediate past for more examples:

Didier Drogba | Chelsea

2009-10: 32 matches, 29 goals - Chelsea win the title

2010-11: 36 matches, 11 goals - Chelsea finish nine points behind Manchester United

Dimitar Berbatov | Manchester United

2010-11: 32 matches, 20 goals - Manchester United win the title

2011-12: 12 matches, 7 goals - United lose title to Manchester City on goal difference

Sergio Aguero | Manchester City

2011-12: 34 matches, 23 goals - Manchester City win the title

2012-13: 30 matches, 12 goals - City finish 11 points behind Manchester United

Robin van Persie | Manchester United

2012-13: 38 matches, 26 goals - Manchester United win the title

2013-14: 21 matches, 12 goals - United finish 22 points behind Manchester City

Yaya Toure | Manchester City

2013-14: 35 matches, 20 goals - Manchester City win the title

2014-15: 29 matches, 10 goals - City finish eight points behind Chelsea

 

What can we draw from this cycle? Perhaps it just goes to show that these players, while all world-class, are only human; that the only footballers seemingly immune to this trend are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, with everyone else in a class below.

But it also highlights the intensity of the Premier League. Without saying that it is the best league in the world, that distinction belongs to La Liga, it certainly seems to be the most draining.

The league has seen four champions in the last four years (United, City, Chelsea, Leicester), while Arsenal and Liverpool have managed second place finishes and Tottenham have finished third. That’s seven different clubs that have been in and around the title over the last four years. In essence, these top teams are each contesting 12 title bout matches each season. 

But even if you succeed in those, you're not guaranteed the title — just look at Liverpool. It's a momentous march to the title, one that requires every sinew, every week. The ability of the likes of Morgan, Robert Huth and Danny Drinkwater to accomplish that perfection last year is still too complex to understand. It's what Arsenal haven't been able to muster for over 12 years.

If you look at the same finishing places in La Liga over the last four years, you see only three clubs: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Nothing is given in the Premier League, that much is evidenced by Leicester City’s flirtation with relegation this season and last year’s demise of both Aston Villa and Newcastle United to the Championship (the only two non-top flight clubs to rank among the most valuable 50 in the world).

Speculating that Mahrez quit on Claudio Ranieri or that Hazard quit on Mourinho makes for better drama, but the reality might be more transparent than that.

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