It may have startled people to be told Wilfred Ndidi was better than N’Golo Kante when the former moved to Leicester in January, but such a lofty statement doesn’t look so outlandish now.
There were many who took exception to such a claim. And considering just how pivotal the Frenchman was to the Foxes’ title win last term, and his continued consistency for Chelsea this season, you can understand their position regarding such an elevated opinion on an unknown quantity. And to be honest, that’s fine.
But it can’t be hard to imagine that posse Ndidi doubters are starting to change their view. Not after the Nigeria international’s showings this season, and certainly not after Monday night’s barnstormer in Leicester’s 3-1 thrashing of Liverpool.
Ndidi may be some way behind Kante in terms of development and maturity, but he has the talent, the temperament and the willingness to learn and improve. His repertoire was once more on display on Monday night. He won 11 of his 14 tackles, a feat exceeding the entire Liverpool defence combined and bettered only by Kante, the man he replaced and with whom he has been compared. Kante won three more against the same opposition earlier in the season.
Ndidi also made five out of five clearances from his penalty area, added another three out of three headed clearances and won three of six aerial duels in a robust, full-bodied performance. For all of that, he was only penalised for one foul. One. What the numbers do not say, however, is the devastating effect his midfield command played in disrupting Liverpool’s game to facilitate Leicester’s.
While it may have been considered a stretch to rate the youngster so highly so early especially with little exposure to top level football, it was most certainly not a claim borne of flippancy.
All of the critical markers were already in place. Ndidi only turned 20 last December, but his understanding, interpretation and execution of his role in midfield is one that puts him a position to be among the best in the world within a few years.
It would not be a stretch to say that his development is more advanced than Kante was at the same age. At 19, the Frenchman was in the reserves at Boulougne in the French second tier and would not make his senior debut until two years later, dropping down to the third division a season after. He did not get to the top flight until he was 23.
By contrast, Ndidi moved straight from a semi-pro team in Nigeria to Genk at 18, and has taken just under a year to step up to one of the biggest and most competitive leagues in the world, where he is now thriving almost effortlessly.
He led the Europa League in interceptions while in Belgium, and has now brought the same cultured bulldog style to England. That style is fashioned by his versatility. Starting out as a striker, Ndidi has filled in competently in attacking midfield, full-back and centre-back positions at different times at both club and international level.
Here’s the scary part: Ndidi is still evolving as a player. For all of his natural abilities, the one thing that points to an outstanding future is his continued humility and willingness to put in an honest training ground shift and improve on a day-by-day basis.
It is a trajectory that leads in only one direction: up. The more Leicester continue to improve, the more Ndidi will flourish. It may be early days but should come as no surprise if the suits at the King Power begin to look over their shoulders at potential suitors for Ndidi, or start looking to upgrade the size of their piggy bank to offer him a new deal. Either way, it’s a win-win for them, and for Gernot Rohr and his Nigeria Super Eagles.
One thing is for certain: Leicester have definitely found the man to fill the Kante-sized hole in their midfield.
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