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The ultimate big game player: How Jamie Vardy actually improves against the Big Six


The ultimate big game player: How Jamie Vardy actually improves against the Big Six

This weekend, Vardy will pit his wits against a depleted defence as league leaders Leicester face Liverpool at Anfield.

JAMIE Vardy scored two goals in his first 26 Premier League appearances. It was 2014-15 and the Leicester striker was struggling as much as his Leicester team were in adapting to life back in the Premier League.

A closer look, though, would have shown signs that he was a far more accomplished player than many thought. The first goal came in Leicester’s 5-3 win against Manchester United in September 2014, the first time in Premier League history that United had lost a game after leading by two goals, the second came in a 4-3 defeat to Tottenham in March. Was there… a Big Six slaying machine in Vardy? Very much so. You just needed to know where to look.

This weekend Vardy travels to Anfield having once again enjoyed the fruits of his decision to retire from international football. While the break has further decimated Liverpool’s tired and tattered squad, Leicester start the second quarter of the Premier League season top of the table and with their legendary striker rested and ready. Vardy has scored 23% of his Premier League goals against Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City and is the actual living example of that most apocryphal of footballer archetypes, the Big Game Player.

Not only has Vardy scored regularly against the Premier League’s elite [“so what” you sneer, “Jon Walters scored seven times against Liverpool”] but here’s the thing: he actively plays better in Leicester’s games against the Big Six. And we can prove it.

Here comes the science bit: excluding penalties Vardy averages an xG of 0.41 against non-Big Six teams and 0.38 against the elite. That doesn’t feel outlandish, although it illustrates how consistent Vardy is even against the bigger sides. What is noteworthy, however, is that while Vardy has a (decent) shot conversion rate of 17.5% against non-Big Six teams it rises to a staggeringly good 25.4% against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham.

Put simply, drop Vardy into a big game and he won’t just give his manager 110%, he’ll give him 130%. Brendan Rodgers must occasionally think back to his mince-smelling reign at Liverpool and wonder what could have been had he signed Vardy. Philippe Coutinho played 13 through balls for the club in 2014-15, but it begs the old question: ‘if you’re threading balls through a defence and Jamie Vardy isn’t there does it even make a noise?

The other great achievement of Vardy’s career is his longevity. His next goal will take him ahead of Teddy Sheringham for Premier League goals scored by players in their 30s, and Vardy has every chance of catching and overtaking Ian Wright’s current record of 93. Coming up is the five-year anniversary of Vardy’s run of scoring in 11 consecutive Premier League games, a spell of form that was the autumn bedrock of Leicester’s title win.

At the time it felt like Vardy, still known then as a striker from the lower leagues, was taking on top-flight royalty given it was Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record he was chasing. My theory is that much of the fuss and bleating about Jimmy Dunne’s apparently-longer 12-game run in the early 1930s (are you sure none of them were own goals? Have you checked the video?) was because Vardy was a relatively small name at the time, playing for a historically unfashionable club. If Vardy did it now he’d almost certainly get more credit. I don’t make the rules, I just have to observe how they work.

And on the subject of history, will Vardy create yet more this weekend and end Liverpool’s long home unbeaten run in the league, which currently stands at a club record equalling 63 games. The previous run came to an end on a cold January day in 1981 with a plucky midlands club called Leicester City winning 2-1 at Anfield, despite trailing the reigning champions at half-time.

The Guardian reported at the time that there were “some historic good manners from the Kop. They cheered Leicester all the way to the tunnel.” For all the usual 2020 reasons that won’t be the case if Vardy does the same on Sunday evening, but rarely has a player deserved it more.

 

 

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Duncan Alexander
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