Nigeria vs Algeria: Tackle king Ndidi needs to do more
Playing as a pure defensive midfielder in modern football is a thankless, unenviable job. These are times where the average fan’s consciousness is only lit when there’s a goal, an assist, a trick or flick. It could be argued that defenders get even more cheers than the defensive midfielder. When there’s a clean sheet, the defensive wall and the goalkeeper get lionized but never the guy who shielded the defense, stopped attacks before it became more deadly.
It is why most defensive midfielders add other phases to their game as it isn’t enough being beastly on the tackling and interception charts.
Ndidi truly does excel at tackling. He leads in the tackles category in the Premier League with nine more tackles than Aaron Mooy in second. Wilfred is supreme at winning balls, rated the joint second for tackles in Europe’s top five Leagues alongside Casemiro of Real Madrid and Bruno Zuculini of Hellas Verona averaging 4.2 tackles per game. He stands out for his discipline too, with just two yellow cards in his entire 28 appearances in the Premier League. For context, Casemiro has four yellow cards in nine games, Zuculini is with three yellow cards and two red cards this season and Europe’s best rated tackler, Rubén Pérez of Leganes has five yellow cards in nine La Liga matches.
The issue though is, that is all he seems good at currently. The midfielder is eminent at tackling, making it an art form but the Nigerian does need to add more string to his bow to gain more recognition. With Leicester City, the 20-year old has steadily emerged as one of the most important players for the Foxes, playing every minute of their Premier League matches but it is difficult to pick a game where he dominated the midfield third with the ball at his feet. It is more Ndidi snapping at heels, weighing in a challenge. It probably is why he pales in the unending comparison with the man he replaced, Ngolo Kante. Kante dominates the midfield with and without the ball, running the ball intelligently into the attacking third after a successful tackle or interception but Ndidi prefers to simply roll the ball out to his more creative colleagues, which in fact isn’t a bad thing.
Casemiro afterall, rolls the ball out to Luka Modric and Toni Kroos but he does more, popping up with important goals for Real Madrid to share in the spotlight amongst more renowned attacking talents. Casemiro is Real Madrid’s fourth highest goal scorer this season with three goals. The Brazilian scored the important opener for Madrid’s victory over Las Palmas last weekend. That as well as scoring in the UEFA Champions League finals, round of 16, UEFA Super Cup and against Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao in the La Liga in 2017. Ndidi comparatively has just three goals and two assists in the entire 2017.
Ndidi was missing from CAF’s shortlist of the Africa Player of the Year award despite his brilliant year with Leicester City which is an indictment on the accuracy of the list but it isn’t illogical to say a few extra goals from him could have gotten his name on the list.
But CAF probably has a cop-out that Ndidi has been less stellar with the Super Eagles. Think of a moment where Wilfred Ndidi has stood out in the Green and White. Think a little harder. It is really difficult to place a finger on one moment, one game where Ndidi has been superlative for the Super Eagles. During the games when chaos reigned in the Super Eagles midfield due to Mikel’s absence or substitution, the Leicester City midfielder could have stepped up to fill in, inject the needed dose of serenity and calm to the midfield but he was also culpable, shifting the ball off his feet as quickly as possible, barely considering pressure zones and spatial arrangements.
In the ties against Algeria and Argentina, there might be not much rest for Ndidi especially with Ogenyi Onazi and Mikel Agu injured. But more importantly, it offers Ndidi the opportunity to exert some influence in the Super Eagles midfield with or without the captain John Mikel Obi on the field. Alongside being outstanding in the tackle, the midfielder needs to be more assured in possession, make clear-headed decisions with the ball at his feet. Oh, and the goals (screamers included) need to start going in.