In a season where the race for the top four is wide open, Leicester City have emerged as a surprising and welcome contender. Manager Brendan Rodgers has transformed a side that stagnated under previous boss Claude Puel into one that plays attractive, fast-paced and effective football.
The Foxes currently sit fourth in the Premier League, just one point off third-placed Arsenal and two behind reigning champions Manchester City. Rodgers has rightly taken credit for his side’s form but several players have also starred. Kasper Schmeichel has been reliable in goal, Çağlar Söyüncü has proved a solid replacement for Harry Maguire, James Maddison has excelled in the creative role and Jamie Vardy already has five league goals.
It is the underrated form of Wilfred Ndidi, however, that is holding things together. The Nigerian has been outstanding at the base of Leicester’s midfield with his relentless pressing game, combative tackling skills and high work-rate. His reliability has allowed full-backs Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell to bomb forward and Maddison to work on creating chances and affecting attacks.
Wilfred Ndidi Consistency Key for Leicester City
Top of the Pile
This season, Ndidi has made more tackles (35) and interceptions (26) than any other Premier League midfielder. He has also made 15 clearances – the joint-second most of any midfielder in the division. In Leicester’s latest league win, the 5-0 thrashing of Newcastle United, Ndidi was everywhere, making the most recoveries (12), most tackles (nine), and most interceptions (five) of any player on the pitch.
As buoyant Leicester fans came out after the match labelling Ndidi as ‘the best DM (defensive midfielder) in the league’, it has become hard to disagree with them. Since he joined from £16 million from Genk in January 2017, the 22-year-old has been consistently excellent.
In the 2017/18 league season, despite only joining Leicester in January, Ndidi made 138 tackles – 19 more than the next best, Everton’s Idrissa Gueye. He carried that form into the next campaign, also, completing more tackles (143) than any Premier League player last season and also coming third on the list for total number of interceptions (83).
Filling the Role
Much was made of impact that a certain N’Golo Kante had on Leicester’s 2015/16 title-winning side with his energy and mobility that often protected ageing centre-backs Robert Huth and Wes Morgan. It was unsurprising, therefore, that Kante’s departure to Chelsea resulted in Leicester producing close to relegation form the next season and the Frenchman winning his second consecutive title, this time with the Blues.
The influence of a top-class defensive midfielder is perhaps overlooked in the modern game but the results are there to see. Since the arrival of Wilfred Ndidi, Leicester’s form picked up again, with the club comfortably avoiding the drop and then securing a top ten finish in 2018/19. This season, with the Foxes bolstering their side with the signings of Youri Tielemans, Ayoze Perez and Denis Praet, higher achievements await them.
“He (Ndidi) doesn’t get the praise he deserves and he does the part of the game no-one wants to do,” James Maddison concluded after a 1-1 draw at Chelsea. It is easy to understand why he is a popular figure among his teammates. The likes of Maddison and Tielemans are thriving as a result of Ndidi’s selfless work off the ball. The former has two goals and two assists in the league this season, while Tielemans has already made 426 passes, with 11 of them being key passes.
The influence of Rodgers can’t be underestimated either. “Watching him (Ndidi) from the outside, he’s obviously a player that’s got good athletic ability and works very hard,” the former Celtic boss told the Leicester Mercury’s Jamie Kemble, and Rodgers also revealed that he aimed to further develop Ndidi’s game.
“I always have that sort of player, a clear, controlling player in the game,” he continued. Sometimes they’re a defensive type like him that can really press the game and play simple, or sometimes it’s a more creative player, a playmaker from behind. (Ndidi) has so much talent.
“All we try to do is make it clear what his function is in the team. It’s a job that may seem a simple job but he does it so effectively. He has to win the ball and give it, simple as that. We’re trying to improve him in that position because you’re going to be on the ball a lot. You’ve got to serve it, serve it over ten or 15 metres. So it’s just simplifying his game and trying to make him efficient. He’s been very impressive. Now it’s more about intercepting, blocking, very rarely will you have to go to ground.
“He covers the ground so fast. His anticipation is very good, he reads the game, he smells the danger, and then for Youri and for James and for other attacking midfield players, to have that type of player in there it’s very important.”
The consistency of Wilfred Ndidi is proving vastly beneficial. Not only is he giving more freedom to Leicester’s attacking players, but he is also providing the perfect shield for a defence that is growing, game by game. It is no coincidence that Leicester have conceded the joint-second fewest number of goals (seven) this season.
Despite narrowly losing to Liverpool before the international break, Leicester are flying high. Rodgers may well be taking this side to a new level but it is Ndidi that is the underrated presence gluing the whole thing together.