Wilfred Ndidi must have run the entire gamut of emotion over the last 10 days or so. First came a game of extremes at Stamford Bridge, and then his first absence from the Leicester City matchday squad for 15 months.
The image of him set upon by Mason Mount is even more harrowing when the entire sequence is viewed in slow motion, as two things become evident: the precise point he should have moved the ball on, and also just how oblivious to the looming threat he was.
At the end of the game, a visibly distraught Ndidi barely made it through the post-match proceedings with his upper lip stiff, and that despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, he righted the wrong with his towering second half header to bring the game level.
Pointedly, it spoke to his ability to overcome an overwrought mental state that, despite the knowledge that his error could well have cost the Foxes weighing on him, he grew into the game and had a stronger showing after the break especially. It would have been easier to slip into self-pity and wallow, or to seek to do too much and consequently get caught out once again.
Of course, the reduced intensity as Chelsea’s breakneck early exertions began to tell helped, as did the entire Leicester team pepping up in the second half and playing up to the level of their own ability. Nowhere was the bump more evident than in looking at the number of times the hosts were dispossessed: only four times in the first half, but a whopping 14 times after the break, and Ndidi weighed in with three won tackles, three clearances and four interceptions.
Most importantly, it was the Nigeria international who rose highest inside the box on a corner to power home a James Maddison corner and restore parity, the one emphatic note in front of goal from the Foxes for all their second-half pushback.
In these circumstances, he would not have been begrudged a relieved smile at the end of it all. Instead though, his demeanour points to a degree of introspection, as well as a keen sense of responsibility: at the base of Leicester’s midfield, Ndidi fulfils an important function, as manager Brendan Rodgers stated afterward.
“He has just had a wee heavy touch, but I’d rather take that - it’s not even a risk for me, it’s an opportunity when you build the game,” the Foxes boss explained. “Sometimes that will happen, and unfortunately for Wilf, it did, but I’m so pleased that he scored the header because he is such a great player for us and he deserved to get the goal.”
Lucas Torreira played roughly 140' of football at Copa America. His 7-minute cameo yesterday was his first involvement this season.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) August 18, 2019
Wilfred Ndidi played close to 600' of football at the Africa Cup of Nations. He's starting his second game on the trot for Leicester in 2019/20.
It comes right around to the crux of the matter, which is that the 22-year-old is tasked with doing something that has not always come naturally, acting as a lone pivot in front of the defence and starting passing moves.
He is not a natural fit within a team whose manager prizes possession of the ball: it is worth noting that erstwhile Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri was steadfast in his insistence that N’Golo Kante could not fulfil that role for his side, despite the Blues’ lack of defensive security in front of the back four last season, and stuck with the maligned Jorginho. Incidentally, the Frenchman is the player Ndidi was signed to replace at the King Power.
As such, there is an ongoing re-education for the player, not just in terms of using the ball more efficiently and positional discipline, but also in receiving the ball with the correct body orientation.
The error is a side effect of learning, but also a pointer to physical toll on a player who has not had a summer off since 2017.
In June and July, he was a virtual ever-present in midfield for Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, playing close to 600 minutes in all, and was not spared the exertion for even the Third Place play-off. In spite of this, he was straight back into the thick of things on the opening matchday of the season.
Hamza Choudhury has just replaced Wilf Ndidi.— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) September 19, 2017
Superb lid, loves a tackle! pic.twitter.com/qk4P6ZEVJj
He would certainly have undergone physical checks to ensure he could handle the strain, but it is the mental fatigue that is harder to measure. A slower mind will lead to slower reaction times, increasing the likelihood of errors and, of course, serious injury.
While rushing him back indicates just how important he is to the Leicester cause, and just how highly he is rated within the club, it is almost a blessing in disguise that he picked up the knock that ruled him out for the trip to Sheffield United. It is also not a surprise. In his stead, Hamza Choudhury stepped into the breach, earning praise from Rodgers as the Foxes picked up their first win of the season.
The belated chance to take a much-needed breather is a welcome one, even though the circumstances are not ideal. However, initial reports indicate it is not a long-term concern. Despite the emotional rollercoaster of the past fortnight, Ndidi can take some solace in the knowledge that it could have been so much worse.