Trips to Swansea seem to have historic implications for Jamie Vardy. Fourteen months ago, he ventured west to Wales having broken a Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive games and on the brink of equalling Jimmy Dunne’s 84-year-old top-flight record by finding the net for a 12th consecutive match. Now he returns to the Liberty Stadium on Sunday as the 1930s are being evoked again. Not since then have the defending champions been relegated. Leicester could leave Wales in the drop zone.
When Vardy last visited Swansea, he was scoring a goal a game. Now Leicester have not opened their account in the Premier League in 2017. One who personified their rise is emblematic again, a sign of their decline. One whose idiosyncratic approach to diet has included Skittles-flavoured vodka has gone from feast to famine. Vardy has not scored in 23 of his last 24 appearances, interrupted only by a hat-trick against a criminally naïve Manchester City. It is a moot point if he even merits a place in the Leicester team.
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Last season feels still more of a mirage, a fantasy where a forward from non-league became Footballer of the Year, a Premier League champion, a Euro 2016 scorer and the subject of a film script. This season has been the unwanted reality check, the reversion to the norm, the illustration that superstars do not suddenly emerge at 28, the indictment of managers and defences who took so long to find a way of stopping an essentially one-dimensional player.
Vardy is still quick, even if he does not exude the dangerous rawness that a hunger to succeed produced. He is stripped of confidence in front of goal, but his track record is not of a consistently good finisher. He has been at his most potent when he has momentum. Now Leicester’s is entirely downward and for some outside the East Midlands, their story would be a perfect circle if it were to conclude back in the Championship.
Vardy’s could have been very different. He was the ultimate outsider who was offered the chance to become part of the establishment, to join the aristocrats who seem to have permanent membership of the private club that is the Champions League. He turned it down. Rejecting Arsenal was, according to interpretation, a welcome sign of loyalty or an indication that Leicester offered him a longer, lucrative contract.
His explanations have varied. In July, Vardy called it an “easy” decision, citing “unfinished business” at Leicester. In his autobiography, he talked about “the tactical aspect… you look at Arsenal’s style of play and they don’t get the ball forward quickly in the same way Leicester do for those runs I like to make in behind the defence.” In other words, he was less suited to a team who play with more possession and a more measured build-up.
It may have shown self-awareness. It certainly counts as a lucky escape for Arsenal. They triggered the £20 million release clause in Vardy’s contract before Euro 2016. Along with Granit Xhaka, he seemed Arsene Wenger’s main summer aim. Now the teams of the targets who eluded the Frenchman’s grasp have been updated with his recent admission he was twice interested in signing N’Golo Kante. The midfielder joins Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Luis Suarez, Paul Pogba and Yaya Toure in the great lost Arsenal XI, the men who might have guaranteed glory on an annual basis and prevented the second half of Wenger’s reign from appearing an anti-climax.
Vardy would not command a place in that side. He belongs in a different category. He could have been Arsenal’s Claudio Bravo, the expensive embarrassment who fuels criticism of the manager who bought and picked him, who damaged results until he was dropped. Except that, while Bravo at least conformed to Pep Guardiola’s ideology, Vardy runs contrary to many of Wenger’s beliefs. In his age, his lack of refinement, his style of play, he is not a classic Arsenal player. Buying him may have seemed a sign of an identity crisis, a failed attempt to import pragmatism and ruthlessness.
Perhaps Vardy would not have been as impotent for Arsenal as he was for Leicester. Perhaps the new challenge would have galvanised him. Perhaps he would not have been weighed down by a collective malaise as he has been at Leicester.
Yet buying him would have compelled Wenger to pick him, at least at first. It would have delayed, if not aborted, the conversion of Alexis Sanchez to the striker’s role and, while Arsenal’s season has taken a predictable turn for the worse, the Chilean’s deployment up front has been responsible for many of their highlights. It was a forward step.
Olivier Giroud’s capacity to contribute as a squad player has been apparent again, even if his run of six goals in eight games has reopened familiar debates to long-term Giroud-watchers, with supporters worried he will score too often so Wenger will pick him. Lucas Perez, the striker eventually signed after Vardy said no, has had a bit-part role but averages a goal or an assist every 72 minutes. Vardy averages one every 268 minutes of club football this season. Albeit in a different, floundering side, he looks a less compelling choice than Sanchez’s deputies, let alone the Chilean.
Arsenal have proved England’s most consistent club over the last two decades. Vardy is their antithesis, a man who reached unforeseen heights and now seems to be plunging back to depths. More and more, he looks a player who had one golden year. And as that year feels further and further in the past, Vardy’s career continues on its unpredictable path with a solitary certainty: Arsenal will not come calling again this summer.
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