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Leicester City were always going to struggle to replicate the success of 2015/16, but not many expected such a poor showing from the Premier League Champions. Claudio Ranieri’s men are just four points clear of the relegation zone and have already suffered four more defeats (seven in total) than they did throughout all of last season. Are they underperforming or have they simply reverted back to the norm? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the heroes of last season, have both failed to rediscover the form which saw them score a combined 41 Premier League goals. N’Golo Kante has moved on to pastures new, in the form of Chelsea, and the centre-back pairing of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, which served them so well last season, has already been breached 26 times. That's just 10 fewer than the entire of last season, but with 23 games still to be played, the Foxes are on target to concede around 65 goals this season.
Why isn’t it clicking for Ranieri this time around? It’s a question that many pundits and journalists have attempted to answer this season. The answers tend to be pretty drastic ranging from Ranieri and the team being found out, to the club letting themselves down in the summer transfer market. The latter claim has some credibility to it, and Leicester’s midfielders, those playing centrally, are lacking something both defensively and offensively.
However, all it takes is one signing and a potential relegation battle could turn this season into a comfortable, mid-table finish, and a solid run in Europe. That season changing signing could come in the form of Wilifred Ndidi. Leicester have been scouting the player for some time and the 19-year-old has had a medical with the club ahead of a January move.
To fully understand why a player like Ndidi is needed you need to see how Leicester shape up and where the problems lie.
The Leicester System
Ranieri has stuck with the system that served him so well last season. It’s the 442/4222 formation with the emphasis on looking to try to counter attack at any given opportunity. The two centre-midfielders – usually two from Daniel Amartey, Daniel Drinkwater and Andy King – sit deeper than Marc Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez, the wide midfielders. The centre-midfield pair look to break up play, screen the defence, fill in when the full-backs push on to support the attack and instigate counter attacks. Whoever starts there needs to be disciplined, intelligent, industrious and have not only the vision to spot a pass but the ability to execute it.
Daniel Drinkwater has managed to carry over his form from 2015/16 and currently averages 4.1 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per 90 minutes. Throughout last season the midfielder averaged 3 tackles and 1.6 interceptions but the midfield is flagging because he’s not got a partner in the form of N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman averaged 4.7 tackles and 4.2 interceptions during his one and only season at Leicester. So far this season Amartey has averaged 1.9 tackles and 1.2 interceptions and Andy King has averaged 1.3 tackles and 1.3 interceptions. Quite the drop off and a bit of an eye opener as to why Leicester appear to be struggling.
Leicester’s Limited Midfielders?
The Leicester midfielders aren’t bad. They just don’t have the requisite quality needed to really dominate a Premier League match. Both Daniel Amartey and Andy King have many strengths but they seem to overlap in what they bring to the starting XI and if both start it can be a bit stale. Defensively they aren’t reaching the highs of N’Golo Kante and offensively they aren’t in the same league as Daniel Drinkwater. The 26-year-old Englishman attempts almost 70 passes per 90 and completes 79% of them. King and Amartey attempt a combined 68 passes per 90 and complete, on average, 82%. On stats alone Leicester are basically a midfielder down in terms of last seasons averages.
Not only that though, it appears both Amartey and King are safe on the ball. Some might even say limited. When they have time and space on the ball they have no problem picking a pass to keep the play moving but when the onus is on them to be incisive it’s when their limitations show up and It’s something Leicester need to address.
In the picture above Islam Slimani has laid the ball off to Amartey, shown by the white arrow, and the Leicester number 13 could play a first time pass out to the right, highlighted by the blue arrow. It’s a pass that would get Leicester in behind the Sunderland midfield and there’s a chance of an overload on that side to work a chance. It’s a pass that gets the Sunderland players running backwards to face their own goal.
However, Amartey is reluctant to play the pass and Sunderland’s Ndong presses him before playing a pass to the retreating Mahrez. While Amartey does complete the pass it’s not dangerous and Sunderland have bodies behind the ball. Mahrez picks the ball up with his back to goal and is eventually dispossessed and what could have been a dangerous opportunity for Leicester comes to nothing.
This time it’s Andy King in possession. The Leicester number 10 opts to play the pass wide into space for the onrushing Danny Simpson, highlighted by the blue arrow. The pass is overhit and Sunderland are able to easily put an end to the attack. A pass which may have made more sense would be the one to the feet of Slimani, highlighted by the white arrow. It would have meant Sunderland left-back, Van Aanholt, would have looked to press the Algerian and stepped out, thus creating even more space for Slimani to perhaps knock a ball out wide to Simpson and then exploiting the space behind Van Aanholt.
Once again it’s Andy King in possession having won the ball back in midfield. He plays the pass highlighted by the blue arrow, to Marc Albrighton, and it kind of kills the momentum as the Leicester midfielder has to come back on himself to chase the ball. A better pass may have been to the right of King to Mahrez, who has positioned himself behind the Sunderland midfield and in a dangerous area. It’s a safe pass instead of a progressive pass.
Why Wilifred Ndidi?
The Genk powerhouse has caught the eye alongside teammate Leon Bailey, a reported target for both Manchester United and Liverpool, so far this season. The versatile midfielder, who is also capable of playing in defence, signed for Belgian club for a reported £80,000 during the 2014/15 season.
He’s got all the traits necessary to excel in the fast paced Premier League. He covers the ground well and at times it looks as though he’s just gliding across the pitch without breaking a sweat. He positions himself superbly for someone so young which enables him to make interceptions and start immediate attacks. When he get’s going he takes some stopping. He’s powerful, imposing and dominant. The scary thing is he’s still a good five/six years off of his prime. Due to the fact he plays in the Belgian League, his stats aren’t readily accessible but that doesn’t mean you can’t see what Ndidi has to offer.
In the two pictures above Ndidi showcases his reading of the game, his tackling ability and his direct style of play. He makes up to dispossess the opposition and then plays a first time pass into space for the Genk man to run onto. Instead of playing it to feet he looks to stretch the oppositions defence and it’s the sort of service the likes of Albrighton, Vardy and Mahrez would thrive on.
Again, we see Ndidi ignore the easy pass which would suit the opposition and instead plays the ball into space which gets the opposition running backwards towards their own goal and in turn gets Genk up the pitch. It’s the sort of positive and progressive passing Leicester need if they’re to utilise their attacking talent.
This time we see Ndidi’s positioning as he stops a potential counter attack before playing a pass forward which takes out five of the opposition's players, highlighted by the two red lines. This takes advantage of the fact the opposition are in transition from defence to attack and therefore not ready to then transition back into defence. The back-line is disjointed and staggered as Ndidi plays that pass forward.
In the two pictures above Ndidi’s intelligence is highlighted. In the first picture, the midfielder could play a pass to the strikers feet, highlighted by the white arrow, but the strikers are outnumbered by the opposition’s defenders and have their back to goal with no runners from midfield in close proximity. The ball may reach the strikers but it doesn’t automatically mean they can do anything with it. Instead Ndidi opts to play a pass which splits the opposition open and stretches the defence. It’s by no means a straightforward pass, with the midfielders blocking it off, but Ndidi executes it and you can see in the second picture how the strikers are now 2 v 2 with the defenders in a precarious position of running back to their own goal.
It’s these sort of incisive and decisive passes that could really give Leicester the adrenaline shot they need as they look to climb up the Premier League table. It may not be a Kante-Drinkwater partnership but Ndidi-Drinkwater couldn’t be the next mutation.