Jamie Vardy v Chris Smalling: The key battle in Leicester City v Manchester United

Jamie Vardy & Chris Smalling

When Leicester host Manchester United on Saturday Night Football, the Premier League's leading marksman, Jamie Vardy, will come up against in-form defender Chris Smalling.

Vardy goes into this game having equalled Ruud van Nistelrooy's stellar feat of scoring in 10 successive Premier League games. Should he extend that streak and score on Saturday, the record will be exclusively his.

Vardy's recent form has rightly been accompanied by widespread praise. He's scored four more goals than any other player in the English top flight, and only Borussia Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (15) and Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (14) have scored more goals across Europe's top five divisions.

Top scorers - Europe's top five leagues 2015/16

Player Club Goals
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Borussia Dortmund 15
Robert Lewandowski Bayern Munich 14
Jamie Vardy Leicester City 13
Neymar Barcelona 12
Thomas Muller Bayern Munich 12

Searing pace is a major factor in Vardy's game. He officially clocks in as the Premier League's fastest player, giving him a handy advantage over every defender he faces. He leads the line for an especially speedy Leicester side that, remarkably, have five of the division's 17 quickest players.

Fastest players - Premier League 2015/16

Rank Name Club Top speed (km/hr)
1 Jamie Vardy Leicester City 35.44
2 Jeffrey Schlupp Leicester City 35.26
7 Marc Albrighton Leicester City 35
12 Ritchie de Laet Leicester City 34.97
17 Wes Morgan Leicester City 34.76

Unsurprisingly, this pace helps Leicester enforce their counter-attacking style that's proved so effective this season. They have attempted the most shots and scored the joint-most goals from counter-attacking situations, with Vardy responsible for the vast majority (eight shots and two goals).

Many of these moves have been launched by their ability to win possession in advanced areas more often than any other side, with Vardy's pace and relentless energy again crucial. Just five of Vardy's 13 goals have had more than one pass in the build-up, emphasising the rapid, sudden nature of many attacks. 

Premier League counter-attacks

Team Fast break attempts Fast break goals
Leicester City 11 3
Chelsea 9 1
Newcastle 8 3
Arsenal 7 1
Tottenham 6 1

Premier League tackles & interceptions in opposition half

Team Tackles & Interceptions in opp. half
Leicester City 152
Tottenham 126
Arsenal 119
Chelsea 119
Manchester United 118

Trying to suppress Vardy's lightening-quick offence will be England colleague, Smalling; a player who is gradually gaining recognition in Manchester United's defence.

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The former Maidstone man is officially the hardest man to score against this season, boasting more clean sheets than any other Premier League player, and he's also been the one constant in his side's miserly defence.

Premier League - defenders with most clean sheets

Player Team Clean sheets
Chris Smalling Manchester United 8
Bacary Sagna Manchester City 7
Aleksandar Kolarov Manchester City 7
Vincent Kompany Manchester City 7
Craig Dawson West Brom 6

Premier League - leading defensive sides

Team Goals conceded Shots faced Shots on target faced
Manchester United 9 116 44
Tottenham 11 158 45
Arsenal 11 134 51
Stoke City 12 198 63
Manchester City 13 106 37

Individually, Smalling ranks as one of the most proactive defenders this season, as just five players tally more tackles, interceptions, fouls, clearances and blocks. While it's never enough to highlight a defender's proficiency with cumulative stats - with a busy defender not always a productive defender - one who combines such regular actions with clean sheets and a lack of shots faced is clearly performing well.

Premier League - defensive actions

Player Club Defensive actions
Sebastien Bassong Norwich 184
Ashley Williams Swansea 182
Chancel Mbemba Newcastle 172
Robert Huth Leicester 165
Jan Vertonghen Tottenham 162
Chris Smalling Manchester United 158
Martin Skrtel Liverpool 158

Like every defender facing Vardy, Smalling doesn't possess the pace to trouble his opponent, and this is an area the Leicester man will look to find his usual advantage. However, United have proven especially adept at keeping opposing teams away from their penalty area this season, and this is something that will encourage Smalling.

Jamie Vardy Leicester City touchmap Newcastle
Image: The majority of Jamie Vardy's touches came in the Newcastle half

As Vardy's touch map against Newcastle illustrates, Leicester simply try and involve him where it matters, in the attacking third.

Every single one of his 13 goals have come from inside the box, which is exactly where Smalling and his defensive peers have successfully kept opponents away from.

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The United defender also presents a much sterner test than Leicester's recent opponents, with just one of their past 10 fixtures against teams currently in the Premier League's top seven.

Vardy's 10-game streak deserves the considerable acclaim it's currently generating. He will be desperate to take the record for himself and, roared on by a fervent home crowd, will be fancied by many to do just that. Facing one of the division's in-form defenders marshalling one of its leading defensive units, Smalling presents Vardy with a fitting final hurdle. 

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