It was love at first sight for Roland Janssen. Upon laying eyes on a bandy-legged 16-year-old in Lagos, Genk’s former head of scouting and Manchester United’s current Belgium scout knew the youngster was something special.
The date was September 2013, and Janssen was at a competition between 10 Nigerian academies, with several other European club representatives also in attendance. It is not unusual for enthusiastic teenagers to play to the gallery when European scouts are present, but one player stood out in particular, displaying a level of composure and intelligence that belied his age and previous training. The youngster in question? Wilfred Ndidi of Nath Boys Academy.
These days Ndidi is busy pulling up trees in Leicester’s midfield, with the Foxes’ adventure set to continue with Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against Atletico Madrid. The Nigerian has come a long way since Genk signed him for £78,000 two years ago, and his eye-catching performances in the last couple of months make it easy to forget that this is only his third season as a professional.
When Leicester sacked Claudio Ranieri in February, an autopsy of their stunning demise from champions to relegation battlers revealed a variety of contributing causes: star men playing below their previous standards, opponents figuring out their tactics and a relative lack of hunger compared to last term. Perhaps, though, the key factor was the departure of N’Golo Kante, who was so vital to the Leicester cause in 2015/16.
Much has been made of Kante’s spy-like qualities; the Frenchman possesses the ability to sniff out danger and prevent attacking moves before they happen, as if he is playing with the advantage of a three-second advance screening of the game. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez may have swept up the end-of-season gongs last year, but everyone knew that Kante was the springboard upon which Leicester’s title triumph was built.
In an attempt to cope without Kante, Ranieri tried a number of different players alongside Danny Drinkwater in midfield. Nampalys Mendy began the season as the ex-Caen man’s de facto replacement, before injury ruled him out for an extended period. Club stalwart Andy King then tried the position for size, but was ultimately ill fitting despite his best efforts. Daniel Amartey looked to be the best of an underwhelming bunch, but Leicester still felt they were in need of an upgrade when the January transfer window opened. Ndidi was duly captured for £15 million, and when Amartey left for the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon he seized his opportunity with both hands. The 20-year-old has not looked back since.
Leicester’s first fixture following Ranieri’s dismissal was against Liverpool at the King Power Stadium; the match was live on television, and Ndidi announced himself to everyone who bothered to tune in. The Nigerian was in imperious form, making 11 tackles – more than Kante managed in any single encounter last term – as Jurgen Klopp’s charges were blown away.
There had been flashes of his talent before then, but the Liverpool victory was the moment when onlookers really sat up and took notice. No Leicester player has made more tackles (4.2) and interceptions (2) per Premier League game than Ndidi, who has still not been booked despite his all-action approach. He has also taken 19 shots on goal – none of his team-mates have taken more since his debut in January – with four of those efforts finding the target. His brilliant strike against Stoke was his first in England’s top tier and, nit-picking aside, it is difficult to pinpoint a chink in his impressive armour. Replacing a player of Kante’s ilk is nigh on impossible, yet Ndidi has risen to the task with the effortless grace of a seasoned professional.
To further contextualize the midfielder’s rise, Ndidi was virtually unknown in his home country when he made his competitive debut in a World Cup qualifier against Zambia in October. He played in an unfamiliar right-back berth in that game; although he made a shaky start, Ndidi eventually steadied himself as the Nigerians ran out 2-1 winners. That match served as proof of his versatility, which would be another valuable asset for Leicester if they were to ever run into an injury crisis.
As Craig Shakespeare’s side go in search of an unlikely Champions League triumph at the Vicente Calderon, they can be confident in the ability of their new midfield tyro to play an instrumental role against much-fancied opposition. After all, Ndidi’s journey from Lagos to Leicester has been one long logic-defying rise to the top.