As the Nigeria international continues to shine, the Foxes could be forgiven for thinking their midfield crown jewel never left
The immediacy of N’Golo Kante ’s success at Chelsea , allowing for a initial brief toe-dipping period, has given ammunition to the notion Leicester City were wrong to let him leave following last season’s title win. Arguably the Foxes’ most impressive performer in all phases, Kante was the hound in their midst, not just hunting down opponents but also injecting urgency into his own ranks. His skill set is so unique as to be bespoke.
And yet, on Monday night against Liverpool, and in victory over Hull City on Saturday, there was the Leicester of old: Darth Vader, wheezing and improbably reanimated, but undoubtedly alive. As they hammered Liverpool, transferring the ball quickly into the channel to savage makeshift centre-back Lucas Leiva, it looked for all the world like Kante had never left.
It was a similar story on Saturday, as Leicester moved five points clear of the relegation zone with their second win in a week.
Enter Wilfred Ndidi .
The Nigeria international has started impressively at the King Power, getting off the mark with a rasping effort in the FA Cup against Derby County, but amidst the general entropy within the ranks, he has been unable to truly shine. Against Liverpool, he delivered his most complete performance to date, before following that up with a commanding showing against Hull.
The role of the Leicester rank and file in the latter-day vicissitudes of Claudio Ranieri will forever be the subject of debate and speculation.
There was something rather soul-destroying in watching the group, previously hapless and supine, leap into battle against their Scouse visitors. Whether that was to do with the nature of the challenge Jurgen Klopp put forward, or with the fact the Premier League’s reigning champions were stirred to battle by the cry of Craig Shakespeare, we may never know for certain.
What we do know is that the entire team put in a performance worthy of last season, finding in Ndidi a willing and able replacement for their departed French enforcer. In place of Kante’s Energizer bunny scurrying came Ndidi’s long-limbed contortionism; concerned, as was his predecessor, simply with winning the ball and laying it off to the more expansive ball players.
His passes were not simply square though. Against Liverpool, the 20-year-old completed only 20 of them in total – demonstrating the immediacy of the home side’s approach - but 10 of those were to Matthew Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez in the wide positions. To reach the latter especially, from his left-of-centre positioning, saw Ndidi play some impressive diagonals to pick out the Algerian.
Against Hull, he completed 49 passes, the third highest in the Foxes team.
He stacks up excellently in the combative stakes too; eleven tackles won, six clearances, and seven aerial duels, just the one foul committed on Monday. The numbers are scarily Kante-esque, and indeed, no player had managed more tackles in a Premier League match since the France international against the Reds in January.
However, the biggest pointer to the player’s value and ability came before the game even began.
Amid concerns over the club’s purchases under Claudio Ranieri this season, as well as a certain perceived loyalty to underperformers, it is no surprise that caretaker boss Shakespeare reverted to the line-up that contested the majority of games last season, even reinstating alienated Japan international Shinji Okazaki, with Islam Slimani available for selection.
This in spite of the fact that, of the lot, the club record signing from Sporting could most be considered useful.
However, it was Ndidi, not Daniel Amartey, who was called upon to fill the Kante-hole. Considering Shakespeare’s public avowal of a consensual management style, with all its suggestions of undue player influence and cliquism, this is remarkable for a player just out of his teens, and who only joined in January.
More than anything else, it was a loud, ringing endorsement by the squad of his immediate impact and ability, and the esteem in which he is held. He is not Kante, might or might not be as good in the long run, and he most definitely will win no league titles with Leicester City. However, Ndidi is something special in his own right.