You know that one person. Everyone does. That one person who crawls under your skin, pulls up a chair and puts their feet up inside. They make your body weak at the knees and your brain discard everything it’s ever known. Your Kryptonite. Think Nemanja Vidic and literally any circa-2009 Liverpool centre-forward. Simba and Scar. Eve and Villanelle.
Or how about dependable old Michael Keane and notorious streak-scorer Jamie Vardy? In many ways, they rather embody the notion that opposites attract. The former is a solid if unspectacular centre-half with a terribly sensible haircut who lives an equally uneventful life off the field. The sort of bloke most mums would love their daughter to bring home, you imagine.
The latter, meanwhile, is a skittish, spiky-haired striker whose diet has previously involved Skittles with vodka and port from a Lucozade bottle, who played for six months with an ankle bracelet and a curfew, who has had his own book, crisp flavour and lookalike, and whose wife is embroiled in the most overt tittle-tattling scandal with a fellow WAG. Peas in a pod, Vardy and Keane are not.
Certainly, it’s easy to see why Vardy is attracted to Keane on the pitch, if not vice-versa. Put simply, Vardy is the ultimate pest. With his brusque turn of pace and willingness to forage ceaselessly for every scent of opportunity, leaden-footed defenders like Keane should be catnip for him. As he has been in at least four previous meetings.
There was the clash at the King Power Stadium last season when he galloped past a flustered Keane to meet an elementary long ball, only to show mercy by firing narrowly wide. Then, in the reverse fixture, a lax touch from Keane allowed Ricardo Pereira to play Vardy through. No pity taken this time. Keane was swiftly punished, Everton rightly beaten.
It is a trend that had already seeped into this campaign, too. Days before Marco Silva’s swansong, a dunderheaded decision to employ a back three at the rampant Foxes left Keane, far more adept when defending from deep than in a more expansive setup like this, cruelly exposed. Vardy diverted home a Kelechi Iheanacho cross that Keane was powerless to stop at source. Two weeks later, in an EFL Cup quarter-final at Goodison Park, Vardy did not score, but Keane’s perpetual fear of his opposite number was evident from the offset, like a child sapped of self-esteem desperately trying not to incur the wrath of their playground bully.
Fast-forward to the present day. As if it wasn’t unprecedented enough already to see canned crowd noise serenading teatime midweek kick-offs at bio-secure stadiums, or Joelinton scoring a goal, or Arsenal registering a clean sheet, here we had Keane keeping the usually frenetic Vardy on an unusually tight leash.
Everton’s outstanding individual in their pivotal 2-1 win over Leicester, the centre-half won every duel in the penalty area and starved the Premier League’s joint-top scorer of even a shot on goal. Building on a stoic derby display and a match-winner at Norwich, Keane was superb again, playing so assuredly against his old nemesis and helping Everton win their first penalty of the season at the other end for good measure.
Perhaps what made this even more convincing, though, is that Keane remained unruffled despite one early brief scare. A surge into the box from Leicester’s inventive central midfielder (remember when Everton had those?) Youri Tielemans led to Vardy being slid in on goal, only for Lucas Digne to make a crucial intervention in the nick of time. This could have set the tone; Keane’s head, by his own admission more fragile than most, could have wobbled.
Now would be probably be a good time to reel off all of the other occasions that Vardy threatened, that Keane's and Everton's serenity were jeopardised. Trouble is, there weren't any of note from the former England striker. Not one. Keane made 12 clearances and won all five of his defensive aerial battles in a faultless showing. Even Leicester’s goal, though deserved given the pattern of the game, was a total fluke, as Mason Holgate’s clearance smacked unfortunately against the unknowing Iheanacho and in. That Keane remained a model of composure throughout, even when the boat began to rock, is a great tribute to the strides he has made from a mental viewpoint, too.
Keane won every aerial duel in the box in that but, equally impressive keeping Vardy quiet, with rest of defence. First time Vardy’s had 30+ touches without recording a single shot in over 3 years— Matt Cheetham (@Matt_Cheetham) July 1, 2020
Maybe, admittedly, there was an element of Father Time catching up with Vardy as much as Keane did here; the striker has made his name as the Premier League’s own Benjamin Button but is now 33 and has just one goal from open play in 2020. Cynics may offer the caveat that Keane, 27, was hardly facing pre-Christmas, full-flight Vardy, who netted in eight consecutive games, for instance.
Perhaps lockdown has blunted those spiky edges and began to shed that extra yard of pace. Indeed, you sense that Vardy, especially after rediscovering his scoring touch with a brace in Leicester’s final pre-suspension match, would be the last player who would want to have to hibernate for three months, given his proclivity for snowballing momentum.
But the truth is, for Keane to face Vardy is as much of a mental endurance test as a physical examination. It's about hanging in there and not submitting, not rising to the bait. On the more trusted watch of Carlo Ancelotti, who has restored great order to a formerly chaotic, frenzied back line, he finally got the better of his old adversary and passed another potentially gruelling assessment with flying colours. Not even Leicester monopolising possession and parking up inside the Everton half for almost the entire second period, or Keane nearly scoring an own-goal to level matters at 2-2 - which would have been entirely Jordan Pickford’s fault - could rain on his parade.
We have seen glimpses of this from Keane before, potential to repay the hefty £25 million Everton shelled out for him to Burnley in July 2017, but only fleetingly. Too much of his Goodison career so far has undulated between impenetrable and indefensible without any solid middle ground established. For each imperious showing, like in this match, or in the last two Goodison Merseyside derbies, there has been a Vardy moment, an error that’s left you cold, a fear he may be next in line to be written off and declared another of Farhad Moshiri’s lavish faux pas.
Yet after fighting off COVID-19 himself during the league’s suspension, he has returned to action in the last ten days to first blunt Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, two leading lights from the rampant league champions. Then head home a priceless Everton winner. And now, finally, get a hold of Vardy for the duration of this edgy yet hugely satisfying victory. And he became a dad in the meantime. Heady days for Keane. Potentially even headier for him and Everton if this new-found impregnability can be sustained.