There was a time when Jamie Vardy dragged Leicester to a title no one expected. Now the goals are lower and the legs are slower, but perhaps it is changing Leicester history once again. A man who reached the 20-goal mark in three Premier League seasons faced the prospect of going 20 top-flight games without finding the net.
However, with defeat at Elland Road just around the corner, Dean Smith turned to his bench to see Vardy and substitute delivered. Kelechi Iheanacho found James Maddison, who provided the pass that split the defense. Vardy, on his favorite inside left channel, conceded a shot. A drought dating back to October ended with a typical Vardy goal. Briefly, another appeared. He celebrated a second but was offside when he converted Patson Daka’s cross, but nonetheless ranked as a crucial second contribution in four days. A second Leicester comeback came courtesy of Vardy.
He had won his penalty at Wolves, again with the dart guy behind a defense that looked like a 36-year-old was struggling to make now. No points from the meetings with the relegation rivals became four. After one point from nine games, Leicester have four of their last two. As a result, they are out of the bottom three. Seven years after becoming champions, they may not be destined for the Championship after all.
Smith also deserves some of the credit. He has always been an entertaining defender of football and seems to have decided that, for a team with a porous back line, attack is the best form of defence. He had surprised by selecting three number 9s against Wolves, in Vardy, Iheanacho and Daka. With Harvey Barnes and Maddison back on form, he demoted two of them to the bench. But down one goal, he rallied all three, swapping Maddison in the process to play from the right flank, allowing him to break into the box. Silenced for a while, Leicester suddenly surged forward, with Maddison proving too elusive for a Leeds side that was missing the injured Tyler Adams. The previously embattled Illan Meslier made an excellent double save from Iheanacho and Daka, even if the latter was offside, and Leicester’s ploy of bringing runners into the box brought a threat.
And a point. It was the type of draw in which everyone could reflect on the moments that cost them victory. Leicester required a combination of Daniel Iversen and Victor Kristiansen to prevent Marc Roca’s final header from crossing the line. Patrick Bamford then missed a golden opportunity from three yards, albeit offside.
However, Leicester could also remember the kind of spectacular Youri Tielemans goal which, brief as it was, seemed destined to join their catalog of great goals. He brushed past Meslier, hit the bar, and curled up in the top corner. But the ball was fired by Boubakary Soumare and, as the VAR showed, he was offside.
It was a reprieve that gave Leeds a chance. Leicester were the better team at the start and, for a team whose previous two outings at Elland Road had ended in humiliation 5-1 and 6-1, there was potential for more embarrassment.
But Smith wasn’t the only interim manager to put the onus on offense. Javi Gracia had paired Bamford with Rodrigo, who were starting together for the first time since October, in a lead of four. Spaniard Gracia has given Leeds more width after Jesse Marsch adopted some clearly narrow tactics and their two wingers combined for the advance, Jack Harrison curling up on a cross, Luis Sinisterra slipping behind the Leicester defense to head in emphatically.
Sinisterra only lasted half an hour, but a third goal in five matches was an indication of his impact on the new regime. Harrison’s is even greater, with three goals and three assists under Gracia’s command, all in games in which Leeds have scored points. He came close to joining Leicester on deadline day, spending much of it at their training ground before a late change of heart from Leeds. If two clubs’ seasons may have changed in the process, if Brendan Rodgers can wonder if buying Harrison would have changed the complexion of his reign, many other decisions since then have the air of a turning point.
Gracia got the interim manager’s rebound but, with just one point in four games, he may be done. Smith has made an impact, with four points in his three games. With Everton next, there is a chance to put some distance between them and a relegation rival. If some of the talent in the Leicester side went untapped at the end of Rodgers’ reign, Smith has shown a willingness to rely on Caglar Soyuncu and Tielemans, who leave in the summer. And maybe Vardy, one of the foxes who never gave up in 2016, will take a bite to help them survive.