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Vardy and Iheanacho vs Ings and Adams: Kevin Phillips on the FA Cup semi-final duel between English football's deadliest duos
In collaboration with The Athletic, BT Sport takes a closer look at the battle between two of English football's best strike partnerships as Leicester and Southampton go head-to-head for a place in the FA Cup final
Strike partnerships may now be rare in the modern game but at Wembley on Sunday there will be two twin attacks going head-to-head in a shootout for the FA Cup final - exclusively live on BT Sport from 6pm.
Jamie Vardy is Leicester’s talisman striker but he is experiencing a cold streak, with just one goal in his last 18 games. Fortunately then, Kelechi Iheanacho has been red-hot, scoring 11 in his last 11 appearances. Between them, they have scored 28 of Leicester’s 80 goals in all competitions this season.
In opposition, Danny Ings has led Southampton’s forward line with 10 goals, and Che Adams his most regular sidekick has contributed seven. Their statistics, and their club’s overall scoring record, may not be as impressive as Leicester’s, but the success of each side’s front two could be the deciding factor on who faces Chelsea or Manchester City in the final.
Former England striker and European Golden Boot winner Kevin Phillips played for both clubs in his career and believes the outcome could hang on which strike partnership clicks best on the day.
Ahead of what is set to be a duel to the death, Phillips takes a closer look at the four protagonists bidding to steal the show at Wembley.
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The 34-year-old hasn’t scored in his last 10 games but that isn’t his longest barren spell for Leicester.
Vardy went 21 Premier League games without a goal in his first top-flight season, which was when Phillips joined their coaching staff after retiring as a player.
Phillips worked closely with Vardy, stressing coolness in front of goal and attempting to change the former non-League striker’s ‘Smash it as hard as you can’ approach into a more subtle and clinical end product.
It certainly paid off, as Vardy has gone on to become the 19th-highest goalscorer in Premier League history, but he has also endured spells where he has struggled to score. In 2016-17, he failed to find the net in 14 games, and scored once in 19, while last season he went nine matches without a goal.
“He is a very positive guy,” says Phillips. “Deep down, he knows he is paid to score goals and when you are not scoring as a striker, you kind of feel you are letting the team down, but he offers so much more.
“As long as someone is scoring, it masks over it, but he won’t let it faze him. He won’t let it change the way he plays. He is a confident guy.
“But he is still doing a job for the team. You can see in his partnership with Iheanacho. They have struck up a good understanding. That comes through Jamie being a bit more intelligent as he gets older.
“It (his recent record) will be frustrating for him because he is paid to score goals and when you don’t do it, you do open yourself up for criticism.”
Vardy has been struggling with a groin issue this season and had hernia surgery in January, returning just 10 days later. As a result, he has struggled to recapture the explosive pace that has frightened defenders for years. But he has tweaked his game, with Iheanacho being the chief beneficiary.
“Naturally as you get older, you adjust your game and adapt it a little bit,” says Phillips, who was still scoring for Leicester when he was aged 40. “He has obviously struggled with the hernia operation, but his all-round game has certainly come on over the last 18 months, certainly under Brendan Rodgers.
“That just comes from being that bit older, more clever and not chasing what you don’t have to chase. You can tell he has improved in terms of his hold-up play. He has a fantastic touch and he can create as well. He has a pass in him. I think that is just from getting older.”
It is great to see a partnership in the Premier League because you don’t see them very often... they compliment each other.
- Phillips on Vardy & Iheanacho
Iheanacho has had to play understudy to Vardy for most of his Leicester career since joining from Manchester City for £25 million in 2017, aged 20.
With previous boss Claude Puel and then Rodgers preferring to play with a lone striker, he has had to be patient as Vardy led the line, stepping up with mixed results when the Englishman has been missing.
It has been more through circumstance than design now that Rodgers has thrown the two together, with injuries to key attacking players providing the Nigeria international with minutes. His superb form has been perfect timing for Leicester.
“When you get on a run, it is amazing how different players can be,” says Phillips. “He is certainly one of those. He has hit the right form at the right time. While Jamie is having a tough period, it is masked by Iheanacho scoring.
“It is great to see a partnership in the Premier League because you don’t see them very often. They are sharing the load, even if at the minute they aren’t sharing the goals, but they complement each other.
“Brendan would have had meeting after meeting where he has debated whether to put them in together. Why not? You have two quality players and a midfield that can back you up, and Jamie has adapted his game to play with another striker.
“He has been so used to playing on his own in recent years – I think the last time he played with a proper partner was David Nugent, when they got promoted (in 2013-14). He had Leo Ulloa at times as well, and Shinji Okazaki as a support striker, of course, but in the last three seasons or so he has played on his own.”
Rodgers knows all about the threat carried by Ings, having signed the then-Burnley striker for Liverpool in the summer of 2015, shortly before he was fired by the Anfield club.
Ings, 28, has been predominantly partnered by 24-year-old Adams, who hails from Leicester and has finally begun to settle into the Premier League after his £15 million move from Birmingham City in July 2019.
In recent games, another former Birmingham player, winger Nathan Redmond, has chipped in with four goals.
But Southampton’s biggest threat to Leicester on Sunday may come from elsewhere.
“Ings is a fantastic player,” says Phillips. “He had a tough time with injuries and at Liverpool but he has come to Southampton (Ings is from the area and was on the club’s books as a kid) and he feels comfortable.
''I tipped him when he was flying to go to the Euros with England but he had a little injury. Some of the goals he has scored this season have been tremendous — the goal against Liverpool was a magnificent finish. He has improved 10-fold and that comes from playing regularly, a bit like Iheanacho.
“Adams has quality. We saw that at Birmingham and again at Southampton. They are strikers that work well with each other. They both like to run in behind but can both link the play. There is certainly room for improvement but his work is bearing fruit now and I am sure a lot of that has come from playing with Ings.
“You can’t take your eye off Redmond because he will hurt you. He is very direct, tricky and has goals in him. I saw him at Birmingham as a teenager and you knew he would go on to big things.
“Southampton have other goal threats. There is no better dead-ball specialist in the Premier League than James Ward-Prowse, in my opinion.
''When you play against Southampton the message will be do not give away silly free kicks around the penalty area because it is almost like a free hit for Ward-Prowse, he is that good. That will be Brendan’s message.''
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