Despite his impressive performances during their title-winning campaign, very few foresaw the impact N’Golo Kante’s move away from Leicester City would have on the champions. Bereft of their midfield dynamo, the Foxes slumped to defeat after defeat, with their defence horribly exposed on multiple occasions.
Six months on from Kante’s switch to Chelsea, however, and Leicester finally seem to have found a solution in the shape of Wilfred Ndidi. Signed from Genk for £15 million in January, the Nigeria international is already being linked with Manchester United and Arsenal following a string of eye-catching displays. And, what’s more, he arguably offers more than Kante.
Like his predecessor, he is certainly not without the stamina required to compete in the English top-flight while his willingness to put his body on the line in a bid to regain possession is without question. In making 10 tackles in 65 minutes against Liverpool he summed up the new-found energy Craig Shakespeare has brought to the squad since Claudio Ranieri’s departure, with those figures close to matching Kante at his destructive best.
And, though Kante is far from being useless when he has the ball at his feet, the early signs are Ndidi is superior when it comes to his range of passing while his eye for goal – particularly from distance – has added a much-needed extra dimension to Leicester’s counter-attacking style of play.
His stats are remarkably similar to those of Kante’s this season and, given Ndidi – who at 20 is six years younger than the man he replaced - is playing for a side that was fighting relegation until a few weeks ago, while the Frenchman is shining for the champions elect, that is some achievement.
That is not to downplay Kante’s impact on the Leicester team, with many having now realised he was perhaps even more important than both Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy during the fairytale season of 2015-16. But in Ndidi it seems another gem has been found, though the man himself does not want to be seen as just a taller version of the player he replaced.
“No, I have never put myself in Kante’s shoes,” Ndidi told Goal in an exclusive interview. “I didn’t look to play like him when I arrived. I just came here to play my own game. I just feel like a different player to him.
“He is a good player, he has proved that he’s great this season. With the support of others, you can do anything you want and you can do it here.”
Ndidi will face the toughest test of his short Leicester career on Wednesday against Atletico Madrid, where his role is set to be crucial if the underdogs are to continue their amazing run and reach the Champions League semi-finals.
In the previous round against Sevilla he was immense as he won countless challenges during the narrow first-leg defeat in Spain before dictating the return fixture in the east Midlands in a performance that saw him outclass opposite number Steven N’Zonzi, completing 25 of his 27 attempted passes in his side’s 2-0 win.
“It was really amazing because right from the start we spoke to ourselves and said we need to try to be warriors,” he told Goal of the Sevilla clash. “That’s the only way we could win.
“We had to go out and do everything we wanted. The atmosphere was nice but we just had to leave it and focus on the game. We all like winning games here, especially a big game like this.”
He will come into the clash at the Vicente Calderon fresh having missed Sunday’s defeat by Everton with a minor calf problem and, at Goodison Park, his absence was felt hugely. Without him alongside Danny Drinkwater, the Toffees trio of Tom Davies, Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley were given the freedom to run at a makeshift Leicester defence and they made them pay time and time again.
Atletico possess similar kinds of players in the shape of Yannick Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann, though obviously their talent outweighs that of the aforementioned Everton players, and it will be Ndidi’s role to ensure they do not have the chance to run at central defenders Robert Huth and Yohan Benalouane.
It is the kind of role Kante relishes, and if Ndidi is to start going down in Leicester folklore as a player of similar repute then this is a test which he must attempt to come through unscathed.
Such a display may well lead to him departing the King Power Stadium as quickly as this summer, but with him in their side Leicester have as good a chance as anyone of going on to achieve something even more special than they mustered last season. It may have seemed impossible, but the Foxes may well have found a midfielder even more effective than their last.