There was to be no away goal for Leicester on their Champions League travels this time, but the Foxes will take their 1-0 defeat against Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon with good grace.
While Craig Shakespeare's side fell victim to the La Liga side's impenetrable ways on home turf, they will come away from Spain's capital feeling pleased with their efforts after doing their own solid defensive job on Atleti. In the end, it was only a highly questionable penalty that separated the two sides.
One man doing his bit was the unflappable Wilfred Ndidi, whose quiet effectiveness on the night once again belied his tender years. The Nigeria international has impressed since joining Leicester from Belgian side Genk for £17m in January, yet watching him play does not feel like watching a 20-year-old still finding his feet at a much higher level. Ndidi is well over half a year younger than Tottenham duo Dele Alli and Harry Winks, plus Manchester City’s Leroy Sane, while even club-mate Demarai Gray blows out his candles almost six months earlier.
Replacing the irreplaceable
Comparisons with N’Golo Kante may have been lazy at first, but they’re not a million miles off the mark. Appearances defy reality: there is over half a foot between them in height, but Ndidi is exactly the player Leicester were looking for when they sold Kante to Chelsea last summer. It took them almost six months to get it right following a disastrous stretch of recruitment, but the 20-year-old has quickly proved he was worth the painful wait.
There are certainly personality similarities in comparing two quiet, humble young players who are well-liked by their team-mates, and who have both made rapid strides after humble beginnings. At Genk, Ndidi was a constant subject of fun from his colleagues, but equally loved by them too.
“They call me the teddy bear because people always try to get to me and try to have fun with me,” Ndidi said recently, recalling the japery from Belgium. “Somebody must always do something to make others laugh and I am always the victim.”
Not on the football pitch, though. He may have only made his Leicester debut three months ago, but it’s already clear that Ndidi is well suited to life in his new surroundings and making his own name. The likeable midfielder has the potential to match his big heart, with a phenomenal leap and composure that's unusual for such inexperience in demanding circumstances. He's got a penchant for the spectacular too – witness his two rockets against Derby and Stoke respectively, plus the stunning volley for Genk against Club Brugge that earned him the 2015/16 Belgian Goal of the Year award.
Ndidi isn't quite the wet-eared greenhorn, though – despite only featuring in the Champions League for the first time this season, the young Nigerian's displays for Genk in the Europa League this term helped Leicester confirm that he was the man they'd been looking for. Particularly impressive were his terrific displays against Athletic Bilbao; first in Genk's 2-0 win over their Spanish rivals, followed up with a goal in their 5-3 defeat back at San Mames.
When Dad’s away
Last week, the 20-year-old told stories of his upbringing in a military zone just outside of Lagos, Nigeria. He recalled how his soldier father was frequently away on missions and that – somewhat perversely – a young Wilfried enjoyed those moments the most. Ndidi Snr. didn’t want his son playing football back then.
“He wanted to make sure I was at school,” Ndidi told The Guardian. “Whenever he went anywhere I was, like: ‘Right, I’m going to play.’”
Perhaps what resonates most from that interview, though, was Ndidi’s recollections of a tough coach – a former Nigerian youth champion, Nduka Ugbade – who saw something in the wiry youngster and duly pushed him to his limits.
“It wasn’t normal training, we would just keep running – there would be two pitches every time and we would have to cover them. Even when you were tired, he’d tell you to keep going,” said the 20-year-old.
“There would be three sessions a day: morning, afternoon and evening. Most of the other players didn’t come because they were scared and couldn’t cope. But he kept pushing me and pushing me, saying that I should not worry about my age and that in football you could beat anybody.”
Leicester fans have seen the fruits of that work this season, not least in the last round of the Champions League where Ndidi was a colossal force in the Foxes’ 2-0 win over Sevilla that earned them the right to face off against Atletico.
Shakespeare’s side were exceptional to a man against their La Liga opposition, but Ndidi’s composure in central midfield (he misplaced only two passes as Leicester’s top distributor) stood out. So too did the lung-busting work ethic instilled in him by Ugbade – as it has all season long. The Foxes will surely need it again when Atletico come to Leicester next week.
There’s a good reason they called him ‘The Octopus’ back in Genk: the 6ft 2in midfielder is a ball-winning machine, all legs but not cumbersome, and capable of hoovering up possession for his side with relative ease. When he wants the ball, the chances are he’ll get it no matter where he is on the pitch.
Ndidi covered a serious amount of ground against Sevilla (see green defensive actions above), but is also dependable around his own penalty area – just check out that cluster around the box
Ndidi was outstanding too just a week earlier against Liverpool, in Leicester’s first game after sacking Claudio Ranieri, who’d only brought him to the club five weeks earlier. In a frantic 3-1 victory he won seven of his 10 aerial duels, made more clearances than either Wes Morgan or Robert Huth, and successfully completed nine of 12 attempted tackles (managed in the first 54 minutes).
On the move
Ndidi’s defensive traits have always stuck out, but it wasn’t necessarily obvious that the young Nigerian would scale these heights so quickly. He was fairly raw when he first arrived at Genk in 2015, following a recommendation from scout Roland Janssen who’d spotted him two years earlier in a youth tournament (not Alex McLeish, who he eventually arrived under after waiting a year to turn 18 – the age non-EU players can sign in Belgium).
An injury crisis meant he had to be fielded as a left-back on debut, but he didn’t play again in the regular season as Genk failed to make Play-off I. It proved a good thing for the youngster, however, who was afforded chances in Play-off II with a smattering of appearances across the back four. It wasn’t until the arrival of new manager Peter Maes, though, that the player we see today began to blossom.
Ndidi became Maes’ “golden boy” in central midfield, having been earmarked for the role following the departure of a key player and injury to another. Maes liked that the youngster had… well, everything. “I noticed he had tremendous stamina,” said the coach who left Genk on Boxing Day last year, shortly before Ndidi’s departure. “But he can read a game too. Remarkable for a boy of 19.” And not bad at all for a player who cost only £78k.
Genk sold him for 218 times that amount two years later – but Leicester know they got a perfectly good deal at £17m in today’s market, and could quite easily double their money for him in good time. In truth, it’s likely they’ll be fending off interest relatively soon; though Ndidi recently called out fake quotes attributed to a so-called representative and claimed he was “200% with Leicester”, players like him don’t go without serious attention in the Premier League.
— Ndidi Wilfred (@Ndidi25) April 6, 2017
It shouldn't be too long before the comparisons with Kante stop either: Ndidi is playing in nobody’s shadow, and making his own way to help the Foxes continue their fascinating foray into Europe ahead of what will surely be an even bigger 2017/18 for him.
Octopi, by the way, effectively have a brain on every tentacle. Figures.