Wilfred Ndidi: An Underrated Gem
Background Photo: Wally Haines, CC BY-SA 2.0
Nigeria is famous for its gemstones, blue sapphires in particular. Some 4,000 miles from Lagos, a Nigerian gem sparkles in Leicester City blue. His name is Wilfred Ndidi.
Leicester achieved the improbable in 2016, winning the Premier League. Supporters, players, pundits were all shocked as N’Golo Kante inspired the Foxes to the title. His efforts were rewarded with a £32 million move to Chelsea. The 5' 6" Frenchman left a huge gap when he chose to swap King Power blue for the Stamford Bridge variety.
Leicester tried to replace the man anointed "world's best defensive midfielder" with Nampalys Mendy. The 26-year-old failed to build on the reputation he crafted at Nice, spending most of his time out injured. Back to the drawing board where Genk's Wilfred Ndidi was waiting with a £17 million price tag attached.
In fairness, Ndidi is no Kante clone. Their physical differences make any comparison apples and oranges. Kante is a Javier Mascherano, the small but quick player who reads the game, using anticipation to make tackles and interceptions that spark attacks. Much taller at 6' 2", Ndidi is naturally better in the air but can work on the deck too. He's more like Steven N'Zonzi.
There are similarities between them in terms of anticipation but their contrasting physiques mean they go about this slightly differently. Ndidi isn’t as quick or snappy as Kante although he compensates in other areas.
Not a dribbler, he still moves the ball splendidly. His passing is wonderful, long balls in particular. His passing range allows him to spark the attack and switch play with precise diagonals
Having changed positions throughout his career, Ndidi is versatile. More importantly, he can break the opposition attack down efficiently with his interceptions and tackles, making him a key asset for Claude Puel's counterattacking side.
The central midfielder’s rise hasn’t been easy. Constant comparisons to Kante set the bar particularly high. However, the tall Nigerian now operates at full throttle. While the Premier League swoons over Lucas Torreira's arrival, Ndidi quietly surpasses him.
He has been by far the best defensive midfielder in the league so far. Updating the graphic above after an additional game, Ndidi posts 68 tackles compared to Torreira’s 42. It's unfair for Kante to be placed in this comparison based upon his reputation when Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri plays him out of position to accommodate Jorginho, so we'll give him a pass.
Instead, let's talk about the characteristic neither Kante nor Torreira brings to the table: height. Ndidi can defend crosses and long balls. He's won 90 aerial duals, miles ahead of Torreira’s 13. Ndidi also leads the way when it comes to clearances plus interceptions. The combination is the currency by which d-mids are valued. Ndidi's checks in with 93.
With all that in mind, he isn't a polished stone yet. Flaws remain to be chipped away. His decision-making can improve. The Premier League gives no second chances. A loose ball or misplaced pass becomes a goal conceded in seconds. Maintaining possession is essential. So is finishing. Frank Lampard regularly pushed forward from his deep-lying position to register double-digits in Premier League goals. Ndidi has only one this campaign. He should be much closer to Lamps' numbers.
In the Igbo language, Ndidi means patience. That is Wilfred's route to the top. He's already proved the £17 million Leicester paid was a wise investment. In time, he can make it appear highway robbery.
If the Leicester workhorse continues to perform at such high levels, clubs will trigger the release clause estimated to be upwards of £35 million. Seeking alternatives to Fernandinho, Manchester City could target Ndidi after missing out on Jorginho.
Thus far, Wilfred Ndidi has toiled in relative anonymity. Come the summer transfer window, Leicester can expect that to change.