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Can Ayoze Perez find a way to co-exist with Jamie Vardy?

Sunday 29th September 2019
Newcastle's top scorer in 2018/19 finds establishing himself at Leicester more challenging than expected.
Newcastle's top scorer in 2018/19 finds establishing himself at Leicester more challenging than expected.

Newcastle visit the King Power today. If you predict match outcomes based on common opponents, you might not fancy the Magpies chances to nick a result. They beat Tottenham in North London and we all saw Spurs blow the early lead when they journeyed up to the East Midlands.

Football is a complex version of rocks/paper/scissors. In the same way that scissors cut paper before being smashed by the rock that had been lurking under said paper, biding its time to gain revenge, the Toon might or might not have the Foxes’ number.  They certainly have in their last two visits, taking all three points from their hosts on both occasions.

Last season and the one before belong to a different era in Newcastle history, however. It’s safe to say Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers considers himself fortunate to come up against Steve Bruce’s Magpies rather than Rafa Benitez’s. He knows what the Spaniard accomplished at the club they have in common, Liverpool. Bruce is neither on that level tactically nor in full command of his new squad at St James’Park. He isn't riding in on a white charger to rescue the players from a contrary boss like Jose Mourinho. With the exception of Jonjo Shelvey, most of the squad enjoyed playing for Benitez.

To make it tougher on Bruce, Rafa wasn’t the only person to leave Geordieland in the summer. He took the hulking Venezuelan striker, Salomon Rondon, with him to Dalian Yifang in China and the club sold Ayoze Perez. That’s a Champions and Europa League manager [one of six in history] and the club’s two top scorers.

Owner Mike Ashley took pity on his new manager, spending like someone had slipped him a Mickey. Joelinton arrived from Hoffenheim as a record transfer [£39.6 million] to replace Rondon. Allan Saint-Maximin [£16.2 million] came from Nice to make fans forget Perez.

That hasn’t happened. Saint-Maximin is yet to open his account in three appearances. Joelinton has featured in a half-dozen games but the goal that beat Tottenham remains his only mark on the scoresheet.

Meanwhile, Ayoze Perez finds life more difficult than liberating at his new club. The Foxes paid just over £30 million for his services but he isn’t exactly returning their investment in the early doors. In five Premier League and two EFL Cup matches he has just the one assist in the latter.

Adapting to the drastic change in style is a challenge. Thanks to Mike Ashley’s miserly tendencies, Newcastle, even under Rafa, was the burly bruiser you hope is too stumbling drunk to do much when you meet in a dark alley. Leicester is the quick little bastard with the switchblade.

Brendan Rodgers isn’t losing faith. The Spaniard started in six of his seven appearances but only played the full  90 when his present and former clubs met in the EFL Cup. Even so, his joy came in the next round against Luton Town when he set up Demarai Gray’s opener shortly after the half-hour.

Rodgers played him as the lone striker in that match. More often, he’s shunted to the right-wing to make way for Jamie Vardy. The Englishman’s game contrasts with Salomon Rondon, forcing Perez to develop new instincts. At St James’ Park, he was the lightning to the Venezuelan’s thunder. At the King Power, Vardy is the lightning. One rumbles across the pitch; the other strikes with blinding speed. Even when working with them, you can’t anticipate they’ll occupy the same spaces or expect you to set up in the same manner.

Perez is hardly the first forward to struggle in Vardy’s vapour trail. Kelechi Iheanacho hasn’t carved out a place. Shinji Okazaki and Islam Slimani had their moments but neither was an equal partner to Vardy in the manner the 26-year-old ex-Magpie was with Rondon.

While it’s incumbent on Perez to assert himself considering that Vardy is 32 and won’t be able to break the sound barrier much longer, that’s difficult when Rodgers’ twin playmakers, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans, are programmed to get the ball to the old man.

Leicester’s continued progress in the EFL Cup may help in that regard but Perez must go through the gears when slotted in the central role. Maddison and Tielemans need a reason to look for him. The next opportunity to gain traction comes at the Pirelli Stadium against Burton Albion on 29 October.

Meanwhile, the challenge is to help his new side end their hoodoo against the old.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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