Ken Early: Smart play for Jamie Vardy is to join Arsenal
The English striker is expected to complete a move from Leicester in the next few days
When you first hear that Arsenal are trying to sign Jamie Vardy, the natural initial reaction is to wonder why. What would a team like Arsenal, who play possession football that forces the opponent to defend at the edge of their own box, want with a player like Vardy, who does all his best work against opponents who defend much higher up the field, leaving space in behind?
Obviously Arsene Wenger understands that too. So if Arsenal are signing Vardy, maybe it’s a sign they are going to tweak their style. Maybe Wenger has finally accepted that he is unlikely to win the Premier League playing Spanish-influenced five-a-side-style football. Even Barcelona have moved away from the Barcelona style towards a more direct, counter-attacking method over the last couple of seasons. With Mesut Özil and now Granit Xhaka in midfield, Arsenal have the sort of pinpoint passers from deep who could exploit Vardy’s ability to race through the defensive line into space.
A shift to a more vertical, counter-attacking style would not be that radical a departure for Arsenal or for Wenger. It was, after all, basically the way they used to play when they were winning the league.
It could also be that the qualities Wenger most admires in Vardy are not primarily technical or tactical.
Great strikersOne of his recurring themes over the last couple of seasons is that Europe, unlike South America, no longer produces great strikers. European players now grow up playing academy football on lush green pitches overseen by qualified coaches.
The safe, structured environment is good for learning technical skills and great for learning the best techniques to hone your physique in the gym, but European academy players seldom have to confront and handle the sort of unexpected situations that get thrown at the kids playing on the potreros of the River Plate.
So Wenger says that Europe now produces lots of skilful attacking midfielders, but not many cunning, sharp-elbowed centre-forwards who will kill to score goals. You could say that European football has gone a bit Arsenal.
Maybe Jamie Vardy has got the antidote. He’s had to fight his way to his current position from the fringes of the professional game. He plays with an aggression and intensity you could almost describe as South American.
Culturally it would be an unusual signing for Arsenal. The few British players Wenger has signed have tended to be polite young men, respectful and respectable. Nobody has ever thought to sing “Theo Walcott’s having a party, bring your vodka and your charlie”.
Vardy is a little bit disrespectable but more importantly he is disrespectful. He has the kind of attitude Arsenal could do with if they ever want to smash through that glass ceiling they’ve been buffeting themselves against for the last ten years.
As for Vardy, he faces a dilemma. He could stay loyal to Leicester, a team that is built around his talents, in the hope that he and his team-mates can go on to make more history. Or he can move to a club like Arsenal, accepting the risk that he might struggle to adapt to their culture and style in exchange for more money and the security of knowing that he now plays for a “big club”.
The choice is complicated by the fact that he can’t trust his Leicester team-mates to keep the faith. Vardy could decide to stay, only to realise at the end of the transfer window that he’s the only star player still there. N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez will be weighing up the same decision. They’ve got an amazing thing going at Leicester, but maybe they’ve already seen the best of it.
Each player will be guided towards his ultimate decision by his agent. The agent makes more money if his player moves for a large transfer fee than if he remains with the same club. Of course, you don’t convince a player to change clubs by explaining that you stand to earn a fat commission on the transfer fee. You have to try to push the right psychological buttons. So you talk to him about ambition. Nobody wants to be the guy who chickened out of moving to a big club when he had the chance.
Moving to Arsenal from Leicester would certainly demonstrate what in football is always called “ambition”. In fact, this sort of ambition is just another word for careerism. It’s conventional: your reward for an extraordinary achievement is to be allowed to move up the social ladder to a richer club. Real ambition would be to upend the existing order of things. Real ambition would be to try to win the Champions League with Leicester.
New contractsBut is anyone really that crazy? Even if Leicester’s players could negotiate new contracts on Arsenal-sized salaries, thus removing the financial incentive to leave, do they seriously think they can repeat their form of last season? Last season their self-belief exceeded all expectations, but do they really believe in themselves that much?
And would Leicester’s owners even want to retain their top players if it meant paying them all Arsenal-grade wages? Even with next season’s increased TV revenues – which will make Leicester at least temporarily richer than classic continental clubs like Inter and Roma – their turnover will be less than a third of Arsenal’s.
If you were Vardy, joining Arsenal now would be the smart play. If he does leave Leicester, it will probably start a chain reaction that results in the team disintegrating before it gets to play in the Champions League. For football fans in general this will be a great pity, but you can’t blame the individuals concerned for making what looks to them like the smart play.