When Wilfred Ndidi smashed Leicester City into an early lead on Tuesday, it not only allowed the Foxes settle into what turned out to be a 2-0 win over a spineless Chelsea side that offered little for 90 minutes, but it also shook the already fragile confidence of Frank Lampard’s men.
The Nigeria defensive midfielder opened the scoring via some quick thinking from a sixth-minute set-piece, partly aided by a Harvey Barnes miscue, to score his first Premier League goal since September 2019.
To some extent, the upshot of that strike also threw Lampard’s plan out the window regarding the Englishman’s bold selection at the King Power Stadium. The former Derby County boss went with a midfield of Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz, with Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic and Tammy Abraham as the attacking trident.
Throw in the fact that Chelsea’s starting full-backs on the night were Reece James and Ben Chilwell and you can opine the Blues had eight forward-thinking players in their XI. Ndidi’s early strike, however, robbed fans of the club of the opportunity to see how well the side could make it work, with the left-footed belter throwing an early spanner in the works.
Lampard’s choice of defensive midfielder was particularly strange, with Kovacic selected in front of the backline ahead of the much-maligned Jorginho and talented Billy Gilmour. The Italy international is not everyone’s cup of tea, in fairness, and has been seldom used this season—evidenced by his eight starts in the PL.
Still, leaving out the former Napoli regista was probably questionable, and some will reckon the choice not to put Gilmour in an unpleasant situation was understandable; however, the eventual selection of Kovacic only highlights the glaring issue that has plagued Chelsea in the last few years in holding midfield.
Pundits in England tend to misrepresent N’Golo Kante as the archetypal defensive midfielder, totally ignoring the fact he’s hardly been used in holding midfield since moving to English football. When Leicester won the league in 2015/16, Danny Drinkwater functioned as the sitting midfielder, controlling the tempo as best he could and utilising his passing range to aid the side’s counter-attacking style.
The following year at Chelsea, Nemanja Matic functioned in that role in a pairing with the France international as Antonio Conte’s famed 3-4-3 carried the West London side to a fifth Premier League crown.
Kante was and has never played in that role consistently, thus questioning why observers criticised Maurizio Sarri for not ‘playing him in his best position’ in that stormy 18/19 season. That debate has seemingly remained even after the Italian’s departure, largely contributing to the strong disapproval of Jorginho by pundits and, especially, supporters.
Lampard initially continued with the Frenchman in a slightly advanced role in central midfield, taking advantage of his roaming ball-winning qualities in the centre of the park and higher up the pitch. However, the intermittent failings of the regista caused a change in approach by the club’s greatest player this season.
Kante was moved deeper to play in front of the defence and the Blues looked to have found the necessary balance in that 14-game winning run in all competitions. Be that as it may, the decline since December has brought back old doubts surrounding the World Cup winner, given how he was steadily exposed in defeats by Arsenal and particularly Manchester City.
Frankly, the team’s broader structural issues have also contributed to recent malaise, but the defensive midfield conundrum will eventually need addressing, with or without Lampard.
Therefore, it begs the question: why wasn’t a DM prioritised in the summer?
Before the start of the season, Goal questioned the summer business of the 2020 FA Cup finalists, raising reservations as to whether they ought to have spent the Havertz money on other pressing areas of the team, such as on a midfield anchorman.
Then-Atletico Madrid star, Thomas Partey, was suggested, due to his all-round quality in central midfield but he’s since joined North London giants, Arsenal.
Lampard’s first-choice for that position appears to be Declan Rice, a Chelsea boy who’s come on in leaps and bounds at West Ham United in the last 12 to 18 months. However, the Hammers’ astronomical asking price and the uncertain future of the West London club’s boss means striking a deal may be unlikely.
So, why not Ndidi?
Admittedly, Leicester won’t let him leave for peanuts due to the significant strides he’s made since joining from Genk in January 2017, while selling yet another key player to a rival may dissatisfy the Foxes' hierarchy.
Still, it makes sense for the Blues to plump for the Nigeria international due to his proficiency playing in front of the defence, ball-winning qualities and pressing adeptness. Reservations may arise about the West African’s ball progression — he currently ranks fifth-bottom for progressive passes per 90 this season for Leicester — but last term demonstrated his growing multifaceted nature.
The significant decrease in passes into the final third and progressive passing can be attributed to featuring in central defence intermittently as well as frequently playing with a central midfield partner, mostly Youri Tielemans, who carries a greater responsibility in driving the Foxes upfield.
Despite scoring on Tuesday night, it wasn’t the most eye-catching showing for the Super Eagle but his overall rise into one of the astute holding midfielders in the game questions why the beaten visitors on Tuesday haven’t looked his way in solving a prolonged issue in the middle of the park.