It seems faintly ludicrous that Jamie Vardy could be considered one of England’s experienced players. When they travelled to the last World Cup in Brazil, he had never played top-flight football and had just scored more than four goals in a Football League season for the first time.
Still, against Germany on Friday, Vardy was the oldest player on either side. Only six players in Gareth Southgate’s 23-man squad to face Brazil on Tuesday have more international caps, and only one, Ashley Young, has more goals. Even then, there is a caveat: Young has scored one international goal in the last five-and-a-half years. Vardy accounts for 26% of all the international goals in this squad.
There are few countries in world football for whom the first-choice striker is so quickly written in pen on the teamsheet as England. Even Neymar has Gabriel Jesus and Romelu Lukaku has Dries Mertens for competition, although Robert Lewandowski and Poland might have a strong case. Harry Kane has scored 76 club goals since the beginning of 2015/16. That is 30 clear of his nearest domestic rival.
That could put Vardy in a difficult position. Being the wrong side of 30 and with virtually no chance of being first choice in his preferred position is a difficult look to pull off, particularly at a time when there is a clamour for young players to be given more opportunities. Tammy Abraham, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are all competing for positions either side of Kane or as his direct back-up; Daniel Sturridge has already been chopped.
Yet Vardy is almost a unique case among football’s major nations as a true Peter Pan player. Having made his first top-flight appearance at the age of 27, Vardy is a young footballer in a 30-year-old’s body. He is something old and something new, something borrowed from a different age and something in Leicester blue. The last English striker to top score for a Premier League title-winning team? Teddy Sheringham (and before that Alan Shearer in 1994/95).
“I don’t think past tomorrow, to be honest,” said Vardy last week. “If I start thinking too far ahead, I’ll forget something. It’s probably a good job I still feel 21. If I felt my age, I’d be a bit more tired with my legs.”
That quote reveals plenty about Vardy’s personality as someone who plays in two modes: stop and go. That first mode is virtually non-existent after Vardy takes the field. He covers yards, closes down, runs the channels and wins headers. It matters not whether he starts or is given 15 minutes when Kane is tired. The output is always the same.
It would be easy to haughtily dismiss those characteristics as part of England’s past rather than future, but they are vital at international as well as club level. The notion of passion – which is an important characteristic in players – and its warp into ‘pashun’ should not detract from Vardy’s usefulness as a pest of defenders.
The positive message from England’s year of progress at youth level is that our next generation of players will be able to compete with Spain, Brazil and Germany in terms of technical expertise, but we are not there yet. It may be unpleasant reading for England supporters, but other countries really do struggle with Vardy’s stamina and irksome style.
Southgate values it too, hence his kind words when Vardy pulled out of the England squad in October with an injury: “He’d run through brick walls for us, no question, and his mentality is top drawer.”
For all the talk of winning with style and finally producing players with flair, there are a number of mental and physical qualities that no international manager would be without, and Vardy boasts those to almost parodical levels.
“We always need a plan B or plan C,” said Jamie Vardy when asked about England’s changes for the draw against Germany. The blend of regular goalscoring and intensity means that he may well form an integral part of both.