January 2017. The champions of England are in trouble. Leicester City are riding a shocking run of form, and relegation has gone from a soft muttering to a genuine worry. Could the champions actually get relegated?
Rewind to summer 2016 and a lot of the answers lie here. The inspirational N’Golo Kanté went effectively unreplaced and one problem led to another. Nampalys Mendy has struggled for fitness and Daniel Amartey looks unconvincing. The question of “who plays alongside Drinkwater?” becomes the dreaded “what on earth do we do?” when he’s given a retrospective three-match suspension following an off-the-ball incident in a defeat to Watford.
A 2-1 defeat at lowly Sunderland in December, where Leicester’s only two available midfielders were Amartey and long-serving Andy King was insipid as it sounds. Leicester are truly crying out for a midfielder.
Step forward Onyinye Wilfred Ndidi. The Genk midfielder joins early in the January window for a fee believed to be £15mil. He makes his debut in an FA Cup victory away at Everton, playing in a midfield three with Mendy and Drinkwater, sitting as the deepest of the three. He was a very notable presence, displaying a physique similar to the likes of Yaya Touré and Patrick Vieira. He looks assured in possession and tactically disciplined.
But even if Ndidi was proving to be a wise buy, things didn’t really improve for the Foxes until March. The sacking of Claudio Ranieri and the almost-overnight rediscovery of the high energy game that made Leicester so effective saw the young Nigerian flourish. He sat in a two with Drinkwater, and from that moment on, he really started asserting his authority on games.
One obvious positive with Ndidi under Ranieri was the cup game against Derby in February, where he netted his first goal. It was a peach. We were promised great goals with Ndidi, following his astonishing volley against Club Brugge for Genk, and this 25-yard lef- footed strike that went in off the post was exactly what we were all hoping for.
Two more goals have since come, and the strike against Stoke was arguably even better than the goal against Derby. An unstoppable strike from 30 yards out was hit with a frightening amount of power, this time on his favoured right foot. To be able to shoot like that with both feet is a huge asset, and I fully expect him to pick up a reputation for scoring great goals.
The biggest problem Ndidi has is that he is following the unfollowable. He is viewed as Kanté’s replacement, and Kanté he is not. Ndidi scores very well for tackles and interceptions, but the Frenchman’s diminutive physique gave him an extra edge – he had this knack to come from nowhere to steal the ball, a lower centre of gravity and more agility. Ndidi is limited somewhat in comparison, although Kanté’s strengths certainly aren’t Ndidi’s weaknesses.
The similarities are evident. Both came from feeder clubs (Caen and Genk respectively), and both offer engines to pair with Danny Drinkwater’s passing. However, the young Nigerian is proving to be the arguably the finest passer on Wayne Shakespeare’s team.
Ndidi is also a strong long-range passer himself, and that suits Leicester to a tee. His shorter passing can be a bit clumsy on occasion, but this can improve with age, and t his long-range passing is solid at its worst, and eye to the needle at its best. He will regularly draw applause when he has played a ball, and his magic on the ball is something not even N’Golo himself was able to achieve during his time in the Midlands.
When Leicester fans criticise the transfer dealings of the 2016/17 season, you will without question hear “other than Ndidi”, and that is testament to what a promising young player he is. After a busy season last time out that saw the 20 year old play over 60 games, I’m expecting a big season from him following a well-earned rest. If his 2016/17 breakout season saw him come in with the Foxes under threat of relegation, at just 20, in his first season in a top five league, then I’m quite excited to see what he’ll do in even more suitable circumstances.