Is Wilfred Ndidi burnout a threat to Nigeria's Africa Cup of Nations hopes?

The Nigeria international was uncharacteristically poor against Newcastle United, and we might be seeing the toll of two years without proper rest

At the weekend, there it was. The one thing previously impossible to envisage, rarer than a sunflower in the desert, as implausible as a vegan lion: a poor Wilfred Ndidi performance.

Unsurprisingly, it coincided with a loss, Leicester City’s first in five games. It was utterly predictable: there are few players in the Premier League more integral to their club’s fortunes and style than the Nigeria international. When he plays well, the Foxes are an entirely different proposition.

On the day, however, he found the going tough against Newcastle United, and was substituted with 20 minutes still to play. This time, there would be no litany of stellar defensive stats to reel out; in 70 minutes. Ndidi had attempted just one tackle and gone 2/11 on duels.

Quite the drop-off for one of Europe’s elite ball-winners!

Considering the aberrant nature of that performance, perhaps a deeper examination is necessary.

Brendan Rodgers Leicester City 2019

Brendan Rodgers has, since his arrival at the King Power Stadium, installed the 22-year-old at the base of a 4-3-3, and has charged him to “control the space in front of the centre-halves” on his own, a role slightly at variance with his more natural proclivities.

While he certainly has the stamina and determination for the job, the former Genk man is at his best when allowed to roam and win the ball all over the pitch, as opposed to hanging back to catch what slips through the net.

Instead, in service to Rodgers preference for a deep-lying player, Ndidi is having to learn a whole new responsibility, a whole new attitude without the ball, on the job. In that light, and despite the fact he has looked perfectly fine up until now, should the occasional blip not be expected?

Fair enough, but perhaps there is a rather more obvious read.

Can it be that, and whisper this very quietly, he is simply tired?

Ndidi Leicester

Much as this bucks the idea of Ndidi as a tireless force of nature, 74 club games over the past two season is quite a lot for a 22-year-old, especially factoring in his lack of a proper preseason rest due to the World Cup last summer. The bill comes due, and if there is a similarly uncharacteristic showing at the weekend against West Ham United, there may be farther-reaching consequences.

While Leicester are safely ensconced in mid-table and have little at stake, there will be all to play for this summer at the Africa Cup of Nations. Nigeria will make a grand return, after a six-year absence, and will look to their brightest talents to lead the charge for a fourth Afcon crown.

However, it is worth considering just how much the Super Eagles' chances might be affected cumulative fatigue, with a number of mainstays within the national team enduring long, gruelling seasons at club level.

Ndidi is, obviously, the biggest concern, being almost unique in his contribution to the national team under Gernot Rohr. However, he is by no means alone: William Troost-Ekong has only missed two league games all season, and his role is key within the side.

Wilfred Ndidi | 2018-19 Premier League stats

Those are two players who are absolutely pivotal to Nigeria’s prospects and whose performances, at the danger of hyperbole, will make or mar the Super Eagles’ chances in Egypt.

Often, upsets in major tournaments are decided on precisely this: the major side, by virtue of the higher profile of their players, do not receive them as fresh as they would like, and they end up paying the price for that slight lethargy, that predictable flagging in the wake of a long season.

In an Afcon group featuring plucky opposition like Guinea and Burundi, it is not difficult to see how things might go wrong.

For Rohr then, and for all Nigerians, the coming weekend takes on a greater significance. A return to typical excellence will lead to wiped brows and audible relief, whereas a continuation of last week will indicate there is something broken.