For many in the England team, this international break was just another tune-up before the culmination of a long process in France next summer. Most all of them have been groomed from a young age; the majority of these Englishmen had been noticed and selected for greatness when they were teens. This is decidedly not the case for Jamie Vardy, who, despite the slight injury that will likely keep him off of the pitch, has to still be pinching himself to make sure this whole thing isn’t a dream.

Consider this: at around this time four years ago, a 24-year-old Vardy was integrating into a brand-new side and hoping to accomplish something big. His new employers, Fleetwood Town, had aspirations of winning the league—an ambition that matched Vardy’s own. If Fleetwood did win promotion, Vardy would for the first time compete on a level he’d yet to experience in his not-so-fresh career: a league of full-time professionals.

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These are the depths from which the Premier League’s current leading scorer clawed his way out. Vardy didn’t break into the first team of his first club—Stocksbridge Park Steels, playing in England’s semi-pro eighth tier—until he was 20. He kicked around lower divisions for a good while, often as a prolific striker whom clubs in the professional Football League would sniff around but never actually bite on. It wasn’t until after he helped Fleetwood make it into the professional ranks by winning the fifth division’s league title that Vardy finally got his shot in the big leagues at age 25. After years and years of commitment, of stomping and sliding around mud-pocked pitches deep in the semi-pro dungeons of the English league system, of supplementing his income with a full-time job as a carbon-fiber technician, of believing despite his position that he had what it took to really make it on the sport’s highest levels, he finally got his shot in the Championship, the level right under the Premier League, with Leicester.

Watching Vardy play for a stretch or two in any given match, you can kind of see why he slipped through the cracks. He’s quick, but he’s not the most agile player. He loves taking on defenders, but he’s not going to pull a Neymar and dance through an entire back line. He works hard, but that’s often a tell that a striker doesn’t produce all that much in the goals department and thus tries to make up for it by running his legs off. No, watching Leicester either without the ball or building play in a methodical manner, it wouldn’t be odd at all to miss Vardy’s contributions completely.

But when Leicester first regain possession, and Danny Drinkwater hits a pass out to Riyad Mahrez on the wing, and Mahrez and Vardy start barreling down towards goal on the break, then you can see what makes the Englishman special.

Vardy is a counterattacking demon. I may have undersold him a little above. He’s not just quick, he’s extremely fast, capable of beating most defenders in the league as he bursts into a dead sprint with the ball at his feet while bearing down on goal. He loves taking on defenders because he’s really good at it; he’s not to type to shuffle past them with ball rolls and heel chops, but instead pokes the ball on at unpredictable angles and shifts up and down gears before kicking into sixth and blowing by. His hard work and dedication to pressing opponents high up the pitch actually contributes to his attacking prowess, as his ability to dispossess defenders often sparks the counters from which he’s so good at scoring. And when he does get the ball on his right foot and near the penalty box, he loves nothing more than smoking the ball as hard as he can, apparently in an effort to snap the threads of the net.

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This breakout season, where he’s scored 12 goals in 12 games, five more than anyone else in the league, is the result of a perfect collaboration between talent and tactics. Vardy’s aforementioned skills are why he’s been a dangerous and productive forward everywhere he’s been; Leicester’s team-wide commitment to early, high pressure and quick, immediate counters is what has led to the best season of his life against the toughest competition he’s ever faced.

It’s probably no coincidence that Vardy’s ascendence has coincided with Mahrez’s. The Algerian winger, who himself toiled in the lower leagues of France before being plucked up by Leicester, has at times looked like the best wide man in England this season. He’s nearly unstoppable while hop-scotching down the right flank, creating opportunities for Vardy or himself. (Mahrez’s seven league goals tie him for second on the scoring charts behind his fellow Fox.) A recipe of intense defending, swift attacking transitions, incisive wing play, and a confident, hungry striker who lives to pound the ball over the goal line has been enough to make Leicester into a table-topping club (they’re currently in 3rd, only one point behind the league leaders) and Vardy the most potent striker in the league, both against all conceivable odds.

It must be wild being Jamie Vardy this week, sitting alongside Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick and Joe Hart, huge names he can finally call colleagues and even teammates, wondering about Leicester’s odds of holding onto a Europe-qualifying position and his own chances of making and possibly even starting for England’s Euro 2016 team. After not too long ago dreaming of maybe playing in one of England’s professional leagues, he now can see the most prestigious club and international tournaments in the world lying out there on his horizon. I wonder if his first thoughts upon waking up are closer to See, I always knew I could do it!, or Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I actually did it.

Photo via Getty

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