Why Leicester City should have let Jamie Vardy leave this summer
In June, word leaked that Jamie Vardy had turned down the opportunity to move to Arsenal. The England international instead chose to sign a new contract and stay with his Premier League-winning pals in Leicester, signing his second contract extension in about six months. His original deal, signed in February at £80,000 per week, included a £22 million release clause that Arsenal triggered with their offer. This deal reportedly includes a pay bump to £100,000 per week and likely includes either a larger release clause or no clause at all.
It's a victory for Leicester to keep one of their three key contributors from last year's miracle. Along with Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante, Vardy performed at the highest possible level last season, scoring 24 goals en route to being named Premier League player of the season. Leicester had no like-for-like replacement for the pacey striker in their team last year, and it was a small miracle that he stayed healthy for the vast majority of the season. It would cost £40m (if not more) to sign a striker who would be likely to perform at the level Vardy did last season.
The longtime Leicester supporter in me looks at Vardy and thinks that he's irreplaceable, that Leicester can't possibly sell a player who was so integral to the team's title run. At the same time, the sober observer in me thinks that it would have been far smarter for Leicester to sell high on their prized asset and let him leave for Arsenal. As painful as it might be to imagine, Leicester might be better off with Vardy wearing red and white next season.
Truthfully, as I think about it from Arsenal's perspective, they might also be lucky that Vardy chose to stay.
It doesn't help that, like many of his teammates, Vardy failed to impress during England's disastrous Euro 2016 campaign. He did chip in the equalizer against Wales, but it was off a mishit by Wales defender Ashley Williams while Vardy was standing in an otherwise offside position.
Vardy turned down Arsenal's offer and instead accepted an improved contract from Leicester; why would the Foxes have been wise to encourage Vardy to move to North London? Let's run through the reasons.
2015-16 was a remarkable outlier
It would be wrong to say that Jamie Vardy was necessarily lucky last season. ESPN FC contributor Michael Caley calculates expected goals (xG) for each player in the Premier League based on Opta data and by those numbers, Vardy's scoring figures were right in line with expectations given the positions he was in and the shots he took. In 3,140 minutes, Vardy scored 19 goals from free play; a typical striker would have produced 18.8 xG from those same opportunities. He did get to attempt six penalties (converting five) -- more than 16 other teams in the Premier League -- but he wasn't producing impossible or unsustainable finishes on a weekly basis.
At the same time, this is far more than Vardy's ever produced. Last year, in 2,247 minutes over 34 matches, he scored just five goals and produced 8.0 xG. In Vardy's two years in the Championship with Leicester, he scored 20 goals over a combined 63 matches. The last time he scored at this sort of rate, he was playing for Fleetwood Town in the Conference.
There was never a point where anybody thought he was a world-class striker until the 2015-16 season. That includes Leicester, which have repeatedly signed strikers and played them ahead of Vardy. They reportedly paid £1m for Vardy, a relatively large figure for a non-league player, and then subsequently signed the likes of Chris Wood (£1.25m) and Andrej Kramaric (£9m, a club record) in the hopes of finding a younger, more gifted poacher.
In the winter, Leicester were linked to speedy CSKA Moscow forward Ahmed Musa and this summer, they were able to complete a £16m deal for him. They've also spent serious sums of money on battering rams like Leonardo Ulloa (£8m) and Shinji Okazaki (£7m), who Leicester were more likely to use as lone strikers than Vardy under Nigel Pearson and who played alongside Vardy as target men in Claudio Ranieri's 4-4-2 this past season. (A mooted £20m move for Watford forward Troy Deeney would give them another player in that style.)
Vardy was able to stay on the field for the vast majority of the season, which is difficult for any striker at the Premier League level. That's not to say he avoided injuries altogether: he played on with a cracked wrist after injuring it in August against Aston Villa, and missed a match in January after undergoing groin surgery before being suspended for the end of Leicester's remarkable title run after a red card.
That run of fitness is also unlikely to re-occur given his age.
Age is more than just a number
As quickly as Vardy burst onto the scene as an elite striker, he's not particularly young. By the time he made it to Leicester in 2012, he was already 25; he will turn 30 halfway through the upcoming season.
That's what makes it so difficult to believe that Vardy established a new level of performance that will be likely to stick in the years to come. Aging curves in soccer are still an inexact science, but research by Caley suggests that Premier League footballers tend to peak around 26, with a drop-off and notable decline for attacking players coming around 28. Vardy just took a dramatic leap forward at 29. Aging curves are best fits and don't explain any one player's arc, but in terms of setting future expectations, having a breakout season at 29 is different than having one at 22.
There are strikers in England, especially in the past, who were able to score regularly into their thirties. Rickie Lambert had 12 and 14 goals for Southampton during his age-30 and age-31 seasons. Yakubu scored 17 times the year he turned 30. Didier Drogba led the league with 29 goals during his age-31 campaign. Mark Viduka chipped in with 15 goals as he turned 31. Those examples are few and far between, though, and there's a key difference between most of those players and Vardy.
A worrying dependence on pace
There's nothing wrong with being a striker and having speed to spare, but when you look at the older strikers I mentioned above, they're not an especially speedy bunch. They're big, strapping centre-forwards who were excellent finishers. They all had some pace, but as it faded out of their game, they were able to adapt with their size and brawn.
Just simply on height and weight alone, you can see the difference:
The reality is that pure speed is tougher to hold onto as players age than strength is.
When you think about strikers who were playing at a high level in the Premier League and similarly dependent upon their pace, it isn't pretty to see what happened to them around this age. Robbie Keane got his dream move to Liverpool during his age-28 season and lasted less than a year before returning to Spurs. At 29, he wasn't a regular in the team and went on loan to Celtic. He's scored five Premier League goals in 22 games across three teams since, before spending the vast majority of his post-30 career with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
By the time Michael Owen turned 30, the oft-injured former Liverpool star signed with Manchester United as a rotation player. He would score just six goals in 39 appearances from his age-30 season on. Darren Bent, another speedy English international, was loaned away from a big-money deal at Aston Villa to Fulham at 29 and spent his age-30 season in the Championship with Brighton and Derby.
Every one of these players had a better track record than Vardy, and they all faded shortly after their age-30 season.
Resale value vs. opportunity cost of keeping him
If you figure that Vardy will likely fail to live up to his 2015-16 season -- which seems a safe bet -- he's going to rapidly become a problem for Leicester. While the television money provided by the Premier League allow them to pay Vardy six figures on a weekly basis, if Vardy's not contributing at a high level, Leicester will be paying far too much of their wage bill to an underperforming player. It will also be difficult to sell Vardy given that few teams will want to pay that much in wages for an aging striker losing his most significant asset (pace). In any event, Vardy probably wouldn't want to leave the sort of life-changing money he'll be making on the table.
It's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Leicester are stuck with an underperforming, unmovable player on their roster in two years. That's far riskier for Leicester; selling Vardy and using the funds to sign the 23-year-old Musa might have been the better option.
Alternately, Leicester could have used a Vardy sale and the space it would have cleared on the wage bill to try and create more funds to retain Kante and Mahrez. Their resale value is far stickier; even if they don't play as well in 2016-17, both Kante and Mahrez are 25 and likely to retain their key skills (Kante's work rate and Mahrez's creativity) for several years. If Leicester held onto them both for another year, they would be far more likely to yield hefty transfer fees next summer than Vardy.
Think about how Southampton sold the likes of Lambert and Dejan Lovren in 2014 and used that as justification to avoid selling Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama at the same time. Granted, they sold both eventually, but it's also a reality that Kante and Mahrez will eventually move on to bigger clubs. Of the three, Leicester would have been best selling Vardy now.