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article imageLeicester's shift under Ranieri ignites Jamie Vardy's hot form

By Tyrrell Meertins     Dec 4, 2015 in Sports
It only took 11 seconds. The conclusion of a swift transitional Leicester City attack witnessed Jamie Vardy yelling “it’s mine, it’s mine,” and in fairness, it finally was.
Vardy, a former non-league player, set his name in the record books surpassing Ruud van Nistelrooy’s streak by scoring in his 11th consecutive Premier League game. It’s a remarkable record set by a player that perfectly embodies his team ethos.
"The boy [Jamie Vardy] doesn't need my motivation because he is motivated himself. He is always willing to do well. He wants to reach targets. He came up from the non-league, he has suffered, he has fought hard to reach this level,” said Leicester City manager, Claudio Ranieri.
"He has to live this moment in complete freedom. What I always ask from him is not the goals, but rather playing for the team and fighting for his team-mates. Then if he scores, that's a bonus."
The shocking decline of reigning champions Chelsea has been the main topic of discussion in England, but the league as a whole has been quite entertaining thus far. Surely, the quality of football may not be superior to other leagues in Europe, but with the other top side’s failing to address issues that would push them amongst the continent’s elite, and mid-table outfits improving, the gap has substantially decreased.
The Foxes concluded match-day 14 at the top of the table alongside Manchester City, and while it’s difficult seeing Ranieri’s men maintain their league position as the season progresses, by no means is their recent success a fluke. Former manager Nigel Pearson deserves credit for last year’s turnaround, but Ranieri’s attention to collective discipline and organization has maintained Leicester’s stellar form.
Even after the final whistle blew at King Power Stadium Saturday afternoon, not even the most intransigent Manchester United supporter could question the Foxes’ resilience. United failed to test goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, and apart from Bastian Schweinsteiger’s equalizer, the away side never looked like scoring from open play — a true testament to Leicester’s work-rate out of possession.
But on the night, the storyline was about Vardy.
Though it appeared inevitable that Vardy would get his chances, Van Gaal’s decision to revert to a back three highlights the Dutchman acknowledging the Leicester striker’s threat. In search of possession, Vardy’s movement was harried across the pitch, yet one opportunistic moment witnessed the striker run across Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian to receive a simple Christian Fuchs pass and beat David De Gea, that exploited a recovering United defence.
That’s one of the characteristics that makes Vardy so influential — he doesn’t require quality service to score goals.
Often chasing loose balls in the channels, whilst itching to utilize his pace to break beyond the defensive line, Vardy has transformed into the star of the current Premier League season. Where foreign stars such as Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard, Sergio Aguero, and Diego Costa have failed to consistently stamp their authority on Premier League opposition, Vardy has lifted his goal tally to 14 with more than half the season left to play.
Vardy is currently seven goals away from equaling the two previous English players to record over 20 Premier League goals in a season — Daniel Sturridge and Harry Kane. Both men notched 21, with the Sturridge forming a devastating partnership with Luis Suarez that nearly guided Liverpool to their first Premier League title. Kane, however, filled the void of Spurs’ striker issues upfront in his development as a competent all-round attacker under Mauricio Pochettino.
It appears that this year may truly belong to Vardy, but much credit must also go to his teammates, and Ranieri’s overall approach. Only two teams in the league monopolize less possession than Leicester’s averaged 44.4 per-cent, and the Foxes 71.1 per-cent pass completion rate is a league worst.
Ranieri’s reluctance to make personnel alterations may come as a surprise to many, as his only major decisions — excluding injuries and suspensions — has been Vardy’s partner upfront, utilizing all three contrasting options at his disposal. Leonardo Ulloa represents an ideal aerial threat, Shinji Okazaki offers dynamism, and admirable pressing from the front, whereas Mahrez tricky dribbling from deep positions has been effective.
Though a majority — if not all — of Vardy’s success has been in the penalty area, the partnerships have varied the buildup to goal. At Newcastle, a simple one-two with Ulloa saw the striker run beyond Coloccini and nutmeg Moussa Sissoko to give Leicester the lead. It was a quality goal that displayed Ulloa's positive linkup play and Newcastle's woeful defending.
Likewise, Vardy was the saviour at Southampton. Leicester recovered a two goal deficit, as the striker’s equalizer showcased his connection with Mahrez. Mahrez’s influence improved following Ranieri's decision to move the 24-year-old from the right flank to play off Vardy in the second half — the Algerian picked up a loose ball from deep and slid a pass behind Virgil van Dijk for the Leicester striker to earn his side a valuable point.
However, it was Vardy’s partnership with Okazaki — the £7m Japanese attacker was a big money summer signing — that featured heavily at the start of the season, but the latter’s scarce goal threat led to several half-time departures. It was the early stages of Leicester’s season where they offered great pressing from the front through Okazaki and Vardy, but found themselves behind due to minimal created chances.
Oddly, Vardy’s goals alongside the Japanese international stem from quick transitions that result in penalties. At Norwich, N’Golo Kante won possession in midfield and slid a pass into Vardy that forced Sebastian Bassong into a cynical foul. A few weeks later, Wes Morgan’s clipped pass into the channel resulted in a clumsy Heurelho Gomes foul, which inevitably doubled Leicester’s lead at Watford.
Okazaki, in fairness, improves Leicester’s shape out of possession as he alternates pressing from the front, while the deeper player cuts off the passing lane to the deep-lying midfielder — there are times where both sit ahead of the deepest midfielders to force the opposition to play long balls or into wide areas.
Nevertheless, in ways, Ranieri’s Leicester has followed Diego Simeone’s successful Atletico Madrid template.
Atletico were compact and organized out of possession in a narrow 4-4-2 system, relying on quick combination passes in midfield, along with Diego Costa’s speed, power, and ruthless finishing on the counter-attack — traits Vardy currently possesses. Leicester is equally impressive without the ball, averaging the league’s most tackles (22.3) and interceptions (22.4) per game, whereas only Aston Villa and Arsenal eclipse their 11.1 dribbles.
Vardy may be the current star of the season, but his teammates have been equally impressive and pivotal towards Leicester’s success. Jeffrey Schlupp and Albrighton offer powerful, direct options going forward, and quickly retreat in to their shape when Leicester concede possession.
Individually, Leicester’s defence remains their weak point, but Danny Drinkwater’s partnership with Kante has kept Gokhan Inler on the bench, forming one of the best midfield duo's in the league. The former maintains his discipline ahead of the back-line, aiming to spray positive passes forward, while the latter's — averaging the league’s fifth highest tackles (3.9) and most interceptions (4.3) — dynamism enables him breaks up play higher up the pitch with the aim of turning defence into attack.
Ranieri’s Leicester have developed into a good Premier League side, and with counter-attacking football presently representing an effective method of success, the Foxes’ league position hinge heavily on whether they can maintain their demanding work-rate and Vardy’s productivity upfront.
"You have to realize that there are not a lot of chances coming your way," Vardy said.
"Once you get them, you need to be taking them. Otherwise, you're going to get punished yourselves."
Perhaps, Vardy’s goals have elevated his status, whereas Leicester’s collective defending and discipline will likely be overlooked, but both parties are responsible for the club's success.
Leicester’s rise to prominence is one of the main story-lines of the European season, and though avoiding relegation was the initial target, their efficiency in both phases of the game, combined with inconsistent results throughout the league, should see tempt the club to exceed their initial expectations.
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