Football Features

Wilfred Ndidi: Leading Leicester’s top-four charge while emulating Ji-Sung Park and Kante

By Harry Edwards

Published: 11:07, 6 November 2019

When Leicester City won the Premier League title under Claudio Ranieri in 2015/16, it was viewed by many as a one-off, fairytale occasion but Brendan Rodgers has the Foxes on the up.

Leicester currently sit third in the Premier League after winning seven of their 11 games this season, losing only to Liverpool and Manchester United so far. And the Foxes have been brilliant.

Rodgers has completely transformed Leicester since taking over from Claude Puel in February 2019, with the club’s attack rightly receiving many plaudits.

In the Premier League, only Manchester City (34) have scored more goals than Leicester’s 27 while the Foxes do hold the biggest win of the season so far, beating Southampton 9-0 at St Mary’s, a record away victory in the competition’s history.

But one man who has flown somewhat under the radar, and has done so for the past few years, is defensive midfielder Wilfred Ndidi.

The Nigerian had the hard task of replacing N’Golo Kante in the Leicester lineup following the Frenchman’s departure for Chelsea in 2016, but has done so with relative ease. He’s even managed to juggle that monumental obstacle with studying a Business and Management course at De Montfort University, although it’s unlikely he’ll be signing up for the DMU football team as Park Ji-sung did during his time there in 2016, such is his importance to the Foxes.

Although Leicester lost Kante in the summer of 2016, they did not recruit until the winter window, with the defensive midfielder joining from Genk in January 2017.

Since making his Premier League debut in a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Chelsea on January 14, 2017, the Nigerian has missed just seven of Leicester’s 105 games in the competition, operating the holding role under Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare, Claude Puel and Rodgers.

For four managers all to keep faith in Ndidi, with only injury or suspension keeping him off the pitch, is a testament to just how impressive the Nigerian midfielder has been at such a young age – he is still only 22. But it won’t be a surprise for those who have followed him closely.

Since the start of the 2016/17 season, no Premier League player has made more tackles than Ndidi’s 402, with the midfielder seven ahead of second-placed Idrissa Gana Gueye. A reminder that the Nigerian missed the first half of the 2016/17 campaign.

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He sits some way clear of Kante who has made 323 tackles in 109 games – 11 more than Ndidi – though the Frenchman’s stats have been somewhat skewered by playing in a different role under Maurizio Sarri last season.

But that should not take away from the wonderful job Ndidi has done at Leicester and continues to do under Rodgers this season.

In Leicester’s recent 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, in which they perfectly nullified the threat of Wilfried Zaha, Ndidi’s position just in front of the defence at the base of Rodgers’ 4-1-4-1 provided perfect cover for his backline.

Speaking on Match of the Day 2 on Sunday evening, former Arsenal defender Martin Keown was quick to praise Ndidi, insisting the Leicester defenders need not worry with the Nigerian ready to put out fires – as Kante did for the Foxes.

“Palace dropped deep and made it difficult for Leicester to play their usual free-flowing style, but the Foxes always had a solid base at the back,” he said.

“Part of the reason for that was their full-backs, Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira, did not look to get forward very much early on, but they also had the security of Wilfred Ndidi sitting in front of their back four.

“I liked the way Ndidi popped in and out between his two centre-backs when needed, and also went out wide to deal with any issues when his full-backs needed help. He covered a lot of ground.

“With Ndidi in the team, his central defenders know they only have to worry about balls in behind them because if a team tries to play to feet in front of them, Ndidi will almost always be there.”

And he’s not wrong, Ndidi has proven himself to be there when Leicester need him most of the time. In his 10 Premier League appearances so far this season, Ndidi has made 32 interceptions. Not only is this more than any other player in the division, but it is also more than any other player across Europe’s top five leagues.

Ndidi outranks the likes of Philip Billing, Casemiro, Issiaga Sylla, Omar Mascarell and Armando Izzo, with the latter his closest rival on 30 interceptions for Torino.

The Nigerian also stands out above the rest when it comes to tackling, making 54 in the Premier League so far – six more than his closest rival in the division. Across Europe’s top five leagues, no other player has managed more than 50, with FC Metz’s Habib Maiga coming closest on 49.

There may not be a better defensive midfielder in Europe right now and the Nigerian is a credit to both Rodgers and Leicester. Should they continue on their path and secure a return to the Champions League, the Foxes must do their utmost to ensure Ndidi takes that journey with them.

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