By Dominic Wells, Max Taylor, Brice Koval, and Phil Stengel
There’s no player that encapsulates Leicester City’s 5000/1 Premier League title quite like Jamie Vardy. He battled adversity in the early stages of his career – juggling working a full-time job with his passion for football, before Fleetwood Town offered him a contract that could blend the two together at 24 years of age. Keen to ensure this opportunity wasn’t wasted, Vardy scored 31 goals in 36 games in his only season for The Cod Army – attracting the interest of his current club, Leicester City. Fast forward just under ten years and he’s a Premier League and FA Cup winner, a full England-international, and has joined the prestigious 100-club for goals in the Premier League.
In terms of what he brings to the Foxes, Vardy is quite literally their “fox in the box” – practically unplayable in the final third. His variety of blindside runs, awareness to chance creation, positioning in the box, and consistent quality of finishing are the reasons he’s succeeded at the highest level of English football. All of these aspects are crucial to Leicester City’s style of play – they focus their pressing around Vardy’s energy from the front – but also the initiation and controlling of the other forwards whilst pressing. His well-rounding goal-scoring profile allows the Foxes to create a plethora of different scoring chances – not limiting them to a certain way of playing in the attacking third. Vardy’s gravity is crucial to the deep-block Brendan Rodgers has implemented versus the “better” opposition in the league, as he creates space for other advancing runners due to defenders worrying about his own presence.
There’s also the running behind the defensive line, something the Foxes coined during their title-winning season. Nowadays, they’ve drifted into a possession-based system, but on their day, can counter with the same devastation because of Vardy’s athleticism and direct nature – not to mention his exquisite conversion rate. It’s this blend of attributes that have caused chaos for opposition since his arrival in the Premier League.
In many senses, Vardy’s journey is like a 5000/1 fairytale, except had you attempted to predict his career when he joined Fleetwood Town in 2011, I think you would’ve made millions off a single pound. It’s for that reason that replacing him is of the utmost importance to Leicester City and Brendan Rodgers.
As Leicester look to build off an FA Cup win and a Europa League place, signing a new center forward is high on the list of priorities. Whether it’s Vardy’s potential replacement or a different option than the current forwards, one will be bought this summer. Recent links to Odsonne Edouard have gained traction, but there are a number of other options who would suit Leicester well. Using data and video scouting, we have profiled four possible players the Foxes may consider:
Odsonne Edouard, Celtic, 23
Celtic and French U21 international Odsonne Edouard has earned many suitors since making the move to the Scottish Premiership before the 2017/18 season, and at 23, it feels like the perfect time for him to make a step up to a bigger league.
It’s no surprise that Edouard has gained such attention in recent years. Not only has he proven to be a consistent and reliable goal threat, but other aspects of his game are really well-refined – traits that are quite rare for center forwards, especially those his age.
Edouard’s recent links to Leicester are particularly interesting when you consider the type of forward he is compared to Vardy. While both possess considerable pace, their primary qualities are actually fairly dissimilar – suggesting Brendan Rodgers is targeting a different profile as a separate option to his current strikers. Like Vardy’s role this season, Edouard spends much of his time in the left half-space – but the way he looks to receive the ball and his strengths once in possession differ.
Despite a ~slight~ drop-off in form in the first half of this past season, Edouard’s league goalscoring numbers have been incredibly consistent since joining Celtic; with 15 in 2018/19, 21 in 2019/20, and 18 in 2020/21. But it’s his creative ability that gives him that extra layer as a multi-functional CF. His expected assist numbers are noteworthy: averaging 0.25 xA per 90 in 2019/20 (league best) and 0.13 in 2020/21. His composure in front of goal is not limited to his shooting, as he consistently shows an impressive ability to find a teammate in a better position than him to convert a higher-quality chance. His creative instincts could be helpful in forming a partnership with one or both of Vardy and Iheanacho – who themselves did so to great effect in the 2nd half of 2020/21.
Edouard’s heatmap in the below graphic illustrates his tendency to drop deep in the left half-space during the build-up – the Frenchman is a natural at drifting into smart areas, and he’s extremely comfortable moving into pockets to receive the ball. His first touch is usually superb, often in the direction he’s looking to move and the right distance from his body to transition into his next action quickly.
His role once retrieving possession, however, isn’t limited to back-to-goal actions. While he is capable of making simple layoffs, he more-often-than-not looks to receive on the half-turn, before taking the ball in his stride and driving upfield to initiate attacks. His ball-carrying ability is one of his biggest strengths, as he combines excellent close control with sharp, agile movements to beat defenders and drive his team forward.
Edouard’s finishing (demonstrated by his goal tallies) is also notable. Like much of his game, he shoots with composure and accuracy – often opting to place his shots rather than hitting them with power, as we have become so accustomed to seeing from Vardy. He’s been a high-volume shooter throughout his career at Celtic (averaging over 4.0 shots p/90 in the past two seasons), which says as much about his tendency to shoot as it does the side and league he plays for and in. Unlike Vardy, Edouard’s initial instinct isn’t always to shoot – he’s more varied in his decision-making in the final third – sometimes opting for a pass instead.
The best way to describe Edouard’s style is calm. Everything he does on the pitch is done with a real sense of nonchalance – which proves to be both a strength and weakness. He’s often a step ahead in his decision-making, assured and thoughtful in his choice of action, but at the same time, you’re often left wishing he made that extra burst to get into the box or in a high-quality position – for all his work during the build-up, an average of just over 5.0 penalty box touches p/90 is low for a player on a side as possession-dominant as Celtic in the SPL.
Edouard’s speed is more notable on the ball than off it – he’s less eager to use his pace to trouble defences in behind than Vardy. He’s a player that prefers the ball to feet, even in the penalty area, as he tends to look for cutbacks rather than making a darting run to escape his marker. His movement to create separation from defenders can improve and is something that could massively help in adding to his array of finishes, as he has the height and frame to be more of a threat in the 18-yard-box. Despite this room for improvement, the Frenchman’s qualities as a center forward make him primed to be a ready-made addition to the Premier League – and the perfect complimentary piece to Vardy and Iheanacho. He would add an extra dynamic to Leicester’s frontline, and his qualities away from his goal-contribution abilities makes him that much more valuable. If the rumored £15m fee is true, he’s a bargain.
Tammy Abraham, Chelsea, 23
Tammy Abraham’s time at Chelsea seems to be drawing to a close, with the out of favour forward being subject to a lot of speculation ahead of a busy summer transfer window. The majority of the interested parties reside in the Premier League, as such, Leicester City have reportedly enquired about his services – potentially as a long-term replacement to Jamie Vardy.
Stylistically, there’s some similarities between the forwards. This might come as a shock considering the disparity in stature, with Abraham standing at 6ft3 tall – and Vardy only being 5ft10. But, there’s a shared tenacity out of possession that creates chaos for opposition defenders when they press. Individually this season, Tammy Abraham (14.49) has a higher pressures per 90 than Jamie Vardy (9.56) – which is impressive given the latter’s prevalence in this given metric (although under Brendan Rodgers, Vardy’s pressuring numbers have steadily dropped – with this season being his lowest ever; with 19.3 in 2018/19, and 14.7 in 2019/20).
Two players can quantifiably perform to a similar standard in a metric, but achieve their results in drastically different fashions. That’s not the case for the pressing numbers, as both Abraham and Vardy relentlessly chase lost balls, give little space to centre-backs in possession, and often are rewarded for the efforts by effectively turning over possession. Abraham’s stature is one of the facilitators of this, as his 6ft3 frame allows him to intercept and block passing lanes with his long legs – they’re also impactful in his running technique (long strides) which means he covers a lot of ground quickly.
Throughout his time at Chelsea, Abraham has been utilised as the “lone” striker, often being fielded as the central forward in a front three. Within the Chelsea front three, Abraham’s role is simplistic – hold a central position to occupy opposition defenders, but also to connect play from the wings/finish any chances that develop from the width. Without dissecting Thomas Tuchel’s tactical setup too vigorously, nor Brendan Rodgers’, the two have fairly similar roles when operating as the only striker.
The obligatory comparison for two strikers is within their goal-scoring. Despite ending the 2020/21 Premier League season with 15 goals, Vardy endured a baron-run of form, with only one goal from 19 games (all competitions) prior to his brace against Tottenham Hotspur on the final day of the season. For this reason, Vardy’s conversion rate – we’ve calculated as goals per shot on target – is the lowest (0.1) it’s been since the data collecting process began at fbref (2016-17 season). Ordinarily, the prolific striker is averaging a goal every 4-5 shots on target, unlike the 10 shots on target this season.
Abraham’s “conversion rate” is a lot higher, even with the English striker only ending the 2020/21 Premier League campaign with six goals. On average, Abraham has a goal per shot on target of 0.46 (essentially scoring one of every two shots on target) – and this is relatively stable for the last four to five years of his career; with a high of 0.53 with Bristol City (2016-17). Even more impressively, Abraham has a higher percentage of shots on target than Vardy does (40.6% to 37%) – outlining that the 23-year-old takes high quality shots and converts with a high percentage.
The types of goals these two forwards score are very different. Vardy has highlighted his unpredictability and lethality throughout his Premier League career with goals on both his left and right foot, from a wide array of angles and ranges, whilst Abraham could be considered a bit more of a predatory finisher inside the box. Abraham’s reactionary and instinctive movement in the final third has a direct impact on his goal involvements – as he’s often the quickest to react to any goalkeeper saves or rebounds, and a smart occupier of space for teammates to find in the six-yard box. It’s difficult to attest Abraham’s fairly limited scoring profile to any limitations in his ability, but perhaps speaks volumes of the chance creation the clubs he’s played for – cut-backs and crosses – to optimally utilise Abraham as a forward. This also illustrates his smart tactical awareness, as his positioning enables the attacking creators to consistently find simple routes to goal.
Within the current Leicester City setup, Vardy’s adaptability has ensured Brendan Rodgers can implement a possession-orientated system that can be fluid in the final third. If the Foxes were to pursue the signature of Abraham, perhaps they’d have to change their approach in attacking sequences – to create chances such as crosses, cut-backs, and even employ tactics surrounding a “focal point” forward. It’s difficult to suggest whether or not this would be successful, despite having a lot of talent in wide areas.
Intriguingly, Abraham has an almost identical amount of touches in the penalty area (5.69 per 90) when compared with Vardy (5.76) – the fox in the box. This resembles similarities towards their involvement in the final phases of play – often being the receptor of the final pass in the shot, or goal, creation. I’d suggest Abraham offers more in the midfield progression than his counterpart, either through receiving vertically or dropping deep – supported by Abraham having 30 touches per 90, and Vardy only managing 22 (with both playing in possession focused sides). I don’t think it’s essential that the 23-year-old is involved during build-up, it merely highlights a slightly more well-rounded attacking profile.
However, an area of Abraham’s game that would inherently help Leicester City is his ability to win aerial duals – 58.2% of them in the 2020/21 Premier League season to be precise. Currently, the Foxes play a style centred around building from the back, but under pressure they often resort to a singular passing lane. Kasper Schmeichel is the predominant passer when under pressure, as the ball slowly retreats to his position as the intensity of the opposition press increases, and he primarily attempts a “medium risk-low reward” lofted pass into one of the wing-backs – Timothy Castagne or Luke Thomas. The idea is to maintain possession behind the first line, or two, of the opposition press – but there’s difficulties in playing this pass and doing so unsuccessfully has added unnecessary pressure to the Foxes in a lot of games this season.
That’s where Abraham comes in, a specialist in the air – aided, again, by his 6ft3 frame – as a pressure reliever. Instead of attempting the clipped pass towards one of the wing-backs, Schmeichel could utilise Abraham in a similar vein to how Edouard Mendy has for Chelsea this season. If the dual is unsuccessful, the possession has been surrendered in the middle/attacking third, instead of inside the defensive third – and his success rate is over 50%, so all outcomes are a net positive when compared to the current proposition of negotiating a high press.
The final cross-referencing metric we’re using is the xG (expected goals) and xA (expected assists) per 90, to understand the preferences of the forward – i.e. creator or finisher. Unfortunately, Abraham has a lower xG (0.56) and xA (0.07) than Vardy this season – but this slight differential could be due to the quality of personnel in either side – especially when addressing the xA. With Vardy having a higher xG (0.62), it could be suggested that he finds “optimal” shooting chances more frequently than Abraham does, or perhaps he’s found in those spaces with a higher frequency. But, with the amount of attacking quality in Chelsea’s squad – when specifically looking at chance creation – it’s to be expected that Abraham’s xA is significantly lower than Vardy’s (0.17), as so many of their attacking players are capable of providing chances. Without a stellar end of season run – involving a lot of assists for Kelechi Iheanacho, Vardy would’ve ended the season with a similar xA per 90.
It was already fairly apparent, but Abraham’s presence in the frontline is that of a focal point finisher. Within the clubs he’s played for; Bristol City, Aston Villa, and Chelsea, the attacking creators focus on fashioning chances via cutbacks, crosses, or tap-ins for the 23-year-old. His involvement in possession is minimal, but unsurprisingly outdoes that of Vardy. It would require some stylistic adaptations from Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City side, but signing Abraham for around £35 million prior to his “prime” years is definitely an astute piece of business – something the East Midlands outfit are becoming renowned for.
Patson Daka, RB Salzburg, 22
In his only season with RB Salzburg (2019/20), Haaland averaged a goal every 61.25 minutes in the Austrian Bundesliga. The man who replaced him, Patson Daka, has a goal every 72.29 minutes in 2020/21 – meaning he’s scoring at a marginally lower rate than the Norweigan’s exceptional season, outlining a denominator of goal-scoring prowess between the two players. The Zambian international will also be a fraction of Haaland’s price tag – if he’s to leave the club this summer – hence why the Foxes could make a move for the RB Salzburg finisher. However, the 22-year-old certainly has the pedigree to translate his performances in Austria to the top flight in England.
Within RB Salzburg’s system, and setup, Jesse Marsch demands that his side presses high. To facilitate this, Daka is one of the two initiators of the press – alongside one of his strike partners; Mergim Berisha or Sekou Koita. But, it’s difficult to attest this quality to the exciting forward, or whether it’s a byproduct of the Marsch system. Regardless, Daka’s tenacity out of possession – intrinsically aided by his quick bursts of acceleration (reaching his max speed quickly) – creates chaos in the opposition defensive third. Within this, he’s also exceptional in these manic scenarios and frequently exploits errors from defenders once under pressure.
Having a tactically developed coach (like he has with Marsch at Salzburg) during the “formative” years of Daka’s growth is already highlighting some excellent net positives. His understanding of the protocols in the press are good; shifting well to cover the “spare man” out of possession (i.e. the holding midfielder/centre-back) and also utilising cover shadows when pressing the defender in possession. Inside of the structure, he maintains his position in the block astutely, recognising when to press out of the shape and when to hold. Because of this knowledge, but also good execution of application, Daka is often successful when aiming to turnover possession – with an obvious caveat being the quality of opposition – potentially inflating his success rate.
Unlike the other players shortlisted, Daka’s application is primarily within a front two. This season, RB Salzburg have utilised a formation with two strikers for 88% (37/42) of their domestic league games this season – often being partnered with Berisha. For this reason, Brendan Rodgers might be reluctant to target the Zambian forward. If the formations he’s resorted to this campaign (in absence of goal-scoring wingers) that are constructed to maximise the skillsets of both Vardy and Iheanacho are the future of the Northern Irishman’s reign at Leicester City, then Daka would be an excellent acquisition – while still being one within a single striker setup.
Initially, Daka’s scoring metrics – and just overall shooting metrics – are exceptional. The forward is averaging a goal every 0.54 shots on target, with a staggering 47.5% of his shots being on target. This isn’t a case of scoring a lot of goals due to an excessive quantity of chances, albeit that still slightly rings true, but Daka is incredibly efficient as a striker – and this always translates well to a “top” league. Occasionally, forwards playing in Europe, but outside of the elite leagues, will accumulate high goal-scoring tallies and thus attract suitors from these “top” leagues, by having a plethora of goal-scoring chances (missing lots of them) and eventually overcoming the skill deficit of the league. This truly isn’t the case for the young Zambian striker – his ability is unquestionable. He’s capable of receiving possession from all angles, manipulating space to allow easier chances on goal – and also his body to score with either foot or head – which correlates into a threatening array of assets from a “poacher-esque” forward.
When looking at both Vardy and Daka’s impact in the penalty area, there’s a lot of similarities in how they both operate. Potently, the two individuals both benefit – and are also hindered – by their gravity (essentially attracting opposing defenders) in the box, which is a knock-on effect of their goal-scoring prowess and danger in these areas. It’s perhaps due to this that both forwards are limited with their touches in the box, with Daka (6.5) having a slightly more involved role than Vardy – 5.76. As has been mentioned earlier, players can achieve similar results in metrics in different ways, but again, I think Daka approaches the spaces in the box similarly to Vardy. The Zambian is instinctive in the box, thus requiring limited touches to convert chances into goals, and he’s also adept at drifting into channels to help provide vertical passing lanes – which is seemingly redundant for penalty area entries, but it actually provides different angles for Daka to utilise.
I’d suggest that neither of the two forwards would be referred to as a “focal point” striker, as they’re usage in buildup is limited – despite Daka dropping into half-spaces and between the lines in tandem with his strike partners movements. Instead of being overly involved prior to chance creation, they’re crucial to translating possession in the final third into goals, as they’re surrounded by creators. This overlap in roles would make the transition to the Foxes’ style of play much easier for Daka, even if he had to adjust his positioning from a two striker structure – where he’d hold wider natural positions and gradually drift centrally during a passage of play – to holding this central positioning inside of a single forward formation (4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3).
One of the other metrics we’ve evaluated is xG and xA per 90 – which, again, Daka performs admirably in. As expected from a forward, Daka’s xG (0.88) per 90 is a lot higher than his xA (0.16) per 90 – but his scoring in both metrics is above the average of Europe’s top five leagues. Utilising his xG numbers, you can understand just how frequently the Zambian forward is finding high percentage goal scoring opportunities – which is also backed up immeasurably by video scouting. This ability to consistently find spaces in the penalty area, and also convert them into shots – at a good rate (like we explored earlier), isn’t restrictive to the Austrian Bundesliga. It’s of course an “easier” division to find pockets and allude defenders, but that intuition should translate fairly flawlessly into the Premier League.
As for his xA, Daka is creating chances for his teammates at an above average rate – even if it’s just slight. It’s difficult to overlook the quality of the league, as RB Salzburg ended the season with 94 goals – 2.94 per game, so accumulating xG and xA is fairly routine, and should be contextualised. Regardless, the value of Daka also having 0.16 xA per 90 shows that albeit with a preference for goal-scoring, he’s an astute creator for his side – he doesn’t suffer from having tunnel-vision in the final third (bombarding the goal with shots and eventually scoring), he’s capable of scanning the surroundings and making optimal decisions. This is probably a by-product of functioning inside of a front two for a couple of seasons.
There’s a lot of similarities between Patson Daka and Jamie Vardy, both incredibly quick across the ground, exceptional finishers of chances – regardless of the difficulty of opportunity – and smart and effective pressers. Vardy’s first few seasons in the East Midlands were inside a front two, and he was able to translate that muscle memory into a fully-functional solo forward – perhaps Daka’s implementation at RB Salzburg (also inside a two) could have a similar effect. Ultimately, he’s one of the best young forwards in Europe and it’s unsurprising that he’s already on the radar of a few Premier League clubs; Liverpool and West Ham United, for a fee in the region of £20million. If the Foxes wanted to secure his services, they’d not only have to fight off other suitors, but they’ll have to offer significantly more money than the quoted price. All of the data suggests that Daka’s worth that extra fee – and some.
Adam Armstrong, Blackburn, 24
Out of all these potential options, Adam Armstrong feels like the biggest project. After finally securing a permanent move away from Newcastle in 2018, the now-24-year-old truly announced himself this season in the Championship with 28 goals for Blackburn. Second only to Premier League bound Ivan Toney, Armstrong will be looking to test himself again in the top flight after failing to make his mark on Toonside.
In regards to stature and play style, he probably comes closest to Vardy in our list of possible Leicester acquisitions. Armstrong is quick, very quick – a trait that Vardy has become renowned for over recent years. Active off the shoulder of defenders and always looking to cause problems in behind, he’s a nightmare for defensive setups holding a high line. His pace often forces defences to retreat, subsequently opening up space in middle sections of the field for teammates to exploit.
With the injury to Harvey Barnes and the introduction of Kelechi Iheanacho, we saw Vardy operating on the left for large portions of games this season. This is a space that Armstrong naturally gravitates towards in his role at Blackurn, and he’d be a perfect option for the Foxes as they look to ease the responsibilities of the veteran Vardy. Linking up and interchanging with Harvey Barnes would form a dangerous duo with direct and high-paced tendencies that push opponents onto the back foot. Armstrong’s mixture of vertical threat and ability to uncover and exploit small pockets of space make him an effective option in a number of game scenarios – pushing for a goal in an open game or breaking down a team in a low block.
Armstrong’s two-footedness is one of the biggest strengths of his game and he’s ambidextrous to the point that sometimes it’s hard to even tell which foot he prefers. As of late April, when he had eclipsed the 20-goal mark, 9 of those were scored with his left, 9 with his right, and 3 with his head. Armstrong’ wide-ranging finishing abilities is similar to Vardy, who has showcased that throughout his Premier League career.
Saying that Armstrong has an eye for goal would be an understatement. He practically has a ‘shoot on sight’ philosophy, and while his efficiency could improve, he has clearly been given the greenlight by Tony Mowbray in this Blackburn setup. The Englishman is somewhat of an activity factory when it comes to making things happen in and around the box. The above dot plot highlights Armstrong’s involvement in the penalty area (he averaged 5.28 touches per 90 in 20/21) – while you may expect that to be higher, Armstrong is similar to Daka and Vardy in that he’s often instinctive in the 18-yard-box, requiring limited touches and instead getting a multitude of shots off when in those positions. That’s highlighted here, as he tops the charts by a significant margin in the Championship in shots per 90 with 4.92, with the next closest being Teemu Pukki at 3.62. This mirrors Kelechi Iheanacho, another high-volume shooter, who averaged 3.58. Armstrong will undoubtedly find it hard to keep up this level in a Leicester team in the Premier League, but Iheanacho’s resurgence this year shows that he’d still be in a team creating plenty of opportunities.
The key will be whether he can improve his efficiency – perhaps one of his biggest faults. After all, he put in 23 non-penalty goals on 189 shots (12%) compared to Ivan Toney who converted 22 of his 135 (16%). Compare this to the conversion rates of Kelechi Iheanacho at 21% and Tammy Abraham at 19%, you can see that Armstrong can work on his shot selection. In a sense though, one of his downfalls is directly related to one of his strengths – high volume, less efficient shooters inherently creates chaos and disturb defenses because of their tendency to shoot so often but simultaneously frustrate because they consistently take low quality shots. After an unproductive year for Jamie Vardy’s standards that saw him underperform his non-penalty expected goals by 5.8, Leicester will be looking to add goals no matter how they come.
For all that he does when his team has the ball, he’s also a very active presser and ball winner for this team – a trait that Leicester will value. Armstrong matched Vardy this campaign for tackles in which the tackler’s team won possession of the ball (8). Playing 83.6% of possible minutes for Blackburn, Armstrong shows similarities to Vardy in his tenaciousness, ability to press high and win the ball, and reliability in selection.
The biggest question mark surrounding Armstrong will be whether or not he can come close to replicating his goalscoring numbers in the top flight. Perhaps more assured options such as Daka, Edouard, or Abraham will turn their head, but one thing is for sure – Armstrong deserves a shot at Premier League football wherever that may be.