When Manchester United visit the King Power Stadium on Saturday evening to face an in-form Leicester City, all eyes will be on the battle between the Premier League’s best defender against the Premier League’s leading marksman.
Jamie Vardy goes into the game having equalled Ruud van Nistelrooy’s incredible feat of scoring in 10 consecutive Premier League and as he chases a record that will solely be his if he scores, the latest big thing in England will come up against one of the in-form center backs in the world, Chris Smalling.
Smalling has been the standout performer in the most consistent backline in the Premier League with Manchester United having kept 8 clean sheets in their first 13 matches. The United center back will be tasked with the job of stopping the high-flying Jamie Vardy, a player whose recent form has been accompanied by widespread praise and an England call-up.
The Leicester City hitman is the League’s leading goalscorer with 13 goals, only behind Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (15) and Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski (14) in Europe’s Top 5 leagues. Vardy’s goal last weekend at the stroke of half time against Newcastle United is an example of Vardy’s coming-of-age as a striker, from a raw talent with oodles of pace to a mature striker using his searing pace to his advantage and backing it up with excellent finishing.
Leicester City have utilized Vardy’s pace to their advantage, registering the most shots and the joint-most goals from counter attacking situations, with Vardy responsible for two of those goals. With legs in midfield and pace up front with the likes of Vardy and Albrighton, Leicester have blown teams away with a fast-paced brand of football. Just five of Vardy’s 13 goals have had more than one pass in the build-up, emphasising the rapid, fast-paced nature of their attacks – something that could well prove to be United’s undoing.
Manchester stuttered in the latter stages against Norwich City last weekend and Leicester’s pace in forward areas makes for a great battle between their attack and United’s miserly defence – Smalling right at the heart of it. The former Fulham man boasts the cleanest sheets for any Premier League defender (8) and has been a constant in Louis van Gaal’s United backline.
Individually, Smalling ranks as one of the most proactive defenders this season, as just five players tally more tackles, interceptions, fouls, clearances and blocks. Combine this with the number of clean sheets he has kept along with the lack of shots United have conceded this season – and you get a top central defensive performer.
For Leicester City, the game plan should be simple. Put Vardy into one-on-one situations with Chris Smalling and while the United man would struggle to deal with the pace of Vardy, United have managed to snuff out pacy front men by isolating them or keeping the opposition away from their penalty area. They managed it against Southampton and should they do it on Saturday, Louis van Gaal have a golden chance of going top.
Each of Vardy’s 13 goals have come from inside the area, and the United backline has done a commendable job keeping opposing strikers away from their penalty area. Vardy’s 10-match scoring streak is grabbing eyeballs all around, taking on one of the world’s inform center backs in Chris Smalling represents a fitting final hurdle. For Vardy and Leicester both.
Usually, this fixture would be a cakewalk for Manchester United. But this is a different Leicester City under Claudio Ranieri, one who will give Manchester United a run for their money.