When Brendan Rodgers joined Leicester City in February pundits were concerned that Jamie Vardy wouldn’t fit in with the new manager’s possession-centric philosophy.
Ten months on and Vardy has scored more Premier League goals - 23 - than any other player in that time frame. It turns out we underestimated the tactical adaptability of both men.
Implausible as it might sound, Vardy is playing even better now - moving more sharply, pressing more intelligently, scoring more frequently - than in Leicester’s title-winning 2015-16 campaign. He is topping the 2019-20 goalscoring charts with 13 goals in 14 games - a strike rate that puts him on course for a record-breaking 35 by the end of the season - and helping Leicester to a seven-game winning streak that sets them up to win more points than in Claudio Ranieri’s fairy tale year in charge.
And yet it did seem like Vardy and Rodgers were an odd fit. The ex-England forward had previously excelled in counter-attacking sides who looked to play him in behind a high defensive line, but that’s all changed after detailed tactical coaching from Rodgers. Vardy is a different player - more nuanced, fine-tuned - than before thanks to the Leicester manager curtailing some of his wilder instincts without losing that explosiveness in the final third.
The main change has been to keep Vardy high and through the middle as opposed to endlessly chasing the ball down, which both conserves energy and keeps him in the most dangerous areas of the pitch. Rodgers has told him to play “more in the corridor and central” and “to stay on the last line”, as revealed in a journalist briefing in early November.
The manager has installed a high-pressing system at Leicester; they make more tackles (21.6) per game than any other Premier League club. That means Vardy’s own press can be streamlined.
“Now it is a lot more synchronised,” Rodgers has said, “and he is doing short bursts of pressing…When he presses, he doesn’t have to worry about pressing on his own.”
Leicester’s new pressing traps also create more one-on-one opportunities for Vardy than in a counter-attacking system. By winning the ball high up the pitch and going for quick, vertical counter-pressing attacks like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Vardy finds himself making runs on the shoulder of the last defender a good 20-30 yards further up the pitch than in the days when Riyad Mahrez would look for a long punt into the channel.
As Rodgers put it in April: “How we have tried to work in training is to bring the ball closer to him in order to serve him better.”
Mahrez has long gone, but in his place are two creative playmakers working in tandem at the tip of Rodgers’ 4-1-4-1 formation; James Maddison and Youri Tielemans are consistently looking to feed Vardy with straight through-balls, alternating in the No.10 space with the same dexterity we saw from Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in Manchester City’s Centurion year.
Vardy is staying mostly in between the two centre-backs, sprinting in short bursts that keep him fresh, pressing as part of a collective rather than alone and benefitting from the open spaces a well-oiled counter-press creates as well as getting on the end of frequent through-balls from Tielemans and Maddison.
At 32, Vardy’s outstanding form is the result of multiple subtle tactical tweaks. His transformation is arguably the best evidence that Rodgers is a brilliant coach who can – and soon will – work at the very top of the game.
But Rodgers’ success at Leicester goes way beyond Vardy. His side currently have the best defensive record in the league, conceding just nine goals, and the second-best attacking record behind Manchester City. Once again, the manager’s high-pressing game explains why.
Using inverted wingers in order to overwhelm the No.10 space, and then progressing the full-backs up the pitch to take advantage of the gaps the wide men leave on the flanks, Leicester’s frantic 4-1-4-1 is about ball retention and winning it back rapidly in the final third. The possession game somewhat speaks for itself, being a continuation of what we have seen throughout Rodgers’ career, but not even his Liverpool team - led by a Vardy-esque Luis Suarez - pressed quite like this.
From frequent tactical fouling to stamp out a counter, to pouncing via suddenly engaged pressing traps, Leicester swarm and harass. It certainly helps having Vardy to lead by example, but the most important individual in the game plan is the under-rated Wilfried Ndidi.
The Nigerian tops the Premier League charts for total number of tackles (65) and interceptions (39), reflecting his immaculate defensive screening from behind the dual playmakers.
It helps, too, that Rodgers is blessed with a pair of full-backs who - bar Liverpool - are unrivalled in the Premier League and perhaps even Europe. Ricardo Pereira is the complete right-back, ranked second behind Ndidi in Premier League tackles, and Ben Chilwell isn’t far behind. Their combined creativity - seven goals and assists in the league this season - adds to the attacking variety that defines Rodgers’ team and that gives Vardy so many chances.
Not that Vardy’s goalscoring numbers are necessarily about chance creation. In fact, his very high conversion rate of 37 per cent goes some way to explaining why Leicester are currently outperforming their ‘expected goals’ [xG] by 11.58 goals. Coupled with an ‘xG against’ that’s 6.18 better than expected Leicester have won 9.26 more points than expected, per understat.com.
Sometimes xG figures indicate performances have been worse than actual results with over-performers therefore likely to regress to the mean, but that doesn’t feel like the case with Leicester. Instead, blocking shots that are usually goals and scoring from shots that are usually missed tells us a simple truth: Rodgers’ tactical genius partially explains Leicester’s superb season, but they also happen to have outstanding individuals.
Vardy, arguably the Premier League player of the decade, is but one of them.