It was always going to be Jamie Vardy.
The form book was in his favour with nine goals in as many starts against Arsenal. In many ways, the Gunners have proved an ideal foil: a team with a discerningly soft-underbelly continually offering up chum for this ravenous predator. They tried to prise him away from Leicester City three summers ago and that failed move has only added to the inevitability of his success.
Here was an Arsenal side in desperate need for something from the King Power Stadium to halt their slide into mediocrity, with a manager who could do with a night without ridicule. But if there’s one thing our main protagonist thrives on, it’s compounding misery. On 68 minutes, the inevitable goal arrived, later supplemented by an assist for James Maddison to complete the win.
Vardy had a relatively subdued match. The first half was very back-and-forth which usually suits his shuttling style. But on a handful of occasions his first touch meant phases of Leicester play had no worthwhile ending. None of the other 21 starters had fewer touches than his 22, three of which were miscontrolled. Yet, here he was, having the last laugh.
It is easy to view Vardy through this prism of being the ultimate troll, partly because of how the man himself embraces it. Whether he’s cupping his ears to opposing fans after netting against them, mimicking an eagle against Crystal Palace or, in 2016, countering Harry Kane’s suggestion that Tottenham were lions with a photo of Mufasa falling to his death as Leicester honed in on the title, not since Luis Suarez has the league witnessed someone embracing panto villainy with such devastating results. Who else could have started October in the eye of the storm when his wife was publicly called out by Colleen Rooney and finish it as player of the month?
The thing is, to simply attribute his output to vengeance, to hail the 32-year old as some Patron Saint of Wind-up Merchants, is to lose perspective on a striker who has broadened his game and adapted to the needs of this current iteration of Leicester.
For when they first graced the Premier League in 2014/15, Vardy’s pace was their main threat. As a newly-promoted side, they were always going to spend more time without the ball than with it, and someone with immense speed, direct and uncomplicated provided them with the ideal outlet, especially against high backlines.
As Leicester rose to prominence and Vardy became an established top-flight forward, teams cottoned on. Suddenly, those lanes to run down were narrowed and through-balls combatted at the source. And while Claudio Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare and Claude Puel struggled to move things along to allow the team and the player to flourish - Vardy nearly left under Puel – Brendan Rodgers has provided a framework in which his marquee striker has evolved. Saturday provided a neat snapshot of that.
Vardy did not complete a single successful dribble against Arsenal. Nor did he hang off the last man waiting for someone to spring him clear as shown by the fact he was not flagged offside once. Instead, he dropped back, occupying space between the opposition’s defence and midfield, even on occasion having the ball at his feet in his own half. A player who made his name charging at goal spent most of this fixture with his back to it.
He found space for his opener by smartly back-peddling out of a cluster of Arsenal defenders, like a cartoon character sneaking out of a pile-on. A more pronounced dart to the left created space on the edge of the box for the second.
When the visitors tried to play out the back, he was the one leading the first press. Though rather than the full-pelt, vein-busting charges we’re used to seeing, there was more conducting and delegating. Positionally, whether Leicester had the ball or not, Vardy was more-or-less immaculate.
In essence, he has become more economical with his movement, perhaps because of the quality of those around him. He now plays in front of a midfield that can retain the ball and thatch together more elaborate plays. Because of how effective full-backs Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira are in advanced positions, he is not required to plough the furrows down the flanks.
It may also be down to age. Vardy will turn 33 in January and is in a period of his life when, naturally, he’ll lose lean muscle mass and see a deterioration in those fast-twitch fibres imperative for sprinting. The data on players’ sprints, which have been recorded by Opta since the start of the 2013/14, shows this decline.
In Leicester’s title-winning season (2015/16), Vardy was fastest in the league with a top speed of 35.44. That was beaten by Leroy Sane in 2017/18 with the Leicester forward finishing 10th that season. He dropped out of the top 10 in 2018/19 and analysis of the opening month of this campaign showed he was not even in the top 20. Now, this does not mean Vardy has lost his breakaway pace, just that it is now no longer a unique attribute.
We have seen countless players who relied solely on speed fall by the wayside when they start to lose those few yards that made them special. Vardy's desire for self-improvement has ensured he will not be one of them.
“I’m always willing to learn, always willing to give a hundred per-cent,” were his words right after the Arsenal match when asked about his more subdued role. A forward who made his name in the fast lane is learning to take it slow.
On 11 goals from his 12 starts, he is on course to beat the 24 from 36 four seasons ago. Given the respective strengths of Liverpool and Manchester City, it seems unlikely this one will end with a league title. Nevertheless, with Vardy 2.0, you cannot write them off completely.
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