There’s a long list of anti-tackling propaganda out there. The legendary, blue-eyed, Italian defender Paolo Maldini famously said: “If I have to make a tackle, I’ve already made a mistake.” If there’s an heir to Maldini’s on-field elegance, it’s former Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso, who added a much longer entry to the ‘ball-winning-is-bad’ discourse.
“I don’t think tackling is a quality,” Alonso told Sid Lowe back in 2011. “It is a recurso: something you have to resort to, not a characteristic of your game.”
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He went on: “I can’t get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play. How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don’t understand football in those terms.
“Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to, a definition.”
Alonso, of course, got to play next to the kinds of players who did all the tackling for him. They’d win the ball back so Alonso could sweep it up, down and across the field with his trademark passing precision. First, it was Javier Mascherano at Liverpool, then Sami Khedira and Lassana Diarra at Real Madrid, and finally Javi Martinez and Arturo Vidal at Bayern Munich. Were he playing today, perhaps Alonso would be lucky enough to play with Wilfred Ndidi.
The 23-year-old Nigerian was purchased by Leicester City for £17 million from Belgian club Genk in December 2016, just weeks before his 20th birthday. He was brought in to replace N’Golo Kante, the two-players-in-one dynamo whom the club sold to Chelsea for around £32m the summer after their incredible Premier League triumph.
Unfortunately for Ndidi, Kante was seemingly a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable player. In his only season with Leicester, the club improved by more than 40 points and won the title. In his first season with Chelsea, the club improved by 40 points and won the title. He’s one of only two defence-oriented midfielders, along with Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira, to win the Premier League Player of the Season award. He also landed both the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year awards too.
No pressure, huh? Well, it has been a little more than three years since Ndidi arrived in the Midlands, and not only has he challenged Kante’s claim as the best ball-winning midfielder in the world, but he’s proving Alonso wrong. Tackling isn’t just a quality. It’s a driving force behind Leicester’s rise toward the top of the Premier League.
Despite rumours linking various players away from Leicester, Brendan Rodgers believes none of them will leave.
Want the ball? Ask Ndidi
The first two months of the season were a slog. Despite winning two, drawing two and losing one, Leicester were grinding out results in an unsustainable fashion. Per the site FBRef, they created 4.4 expected goals in the first five matches and conceded 4.6. In other words, every game was something like a coin flip. They could win any game, but they could lose any game, too — and that isn’t a recipe to break into the Top Six, let alone qualify for the Champions League.
Then something changed. Brendan Rodgers, it seems, realised that he had a weapon and finally decided to deploy it.
In the first five games of the season, Rodgers mainly played Hamza Choudhury, a perfectly capable ball-winning midfielder, alongside Ndidi and Youri Tielemans in midfield. That structure kept them in every game, for good and for ill. However, the tactical beauty of having an omnipotent ball winner player such as Ndidi in your squad is that he allows you to shove an extra attacker onto the field without losing much (if any) defensive solidity. It’s why Pep Guardiola has been able to play the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as de facto midfielders at the same time — it’s all thanks to Fernandinho. And in the age of three-man midfields, it’s why Leicester won the Premier League with a midfield of Kante and Danny Drinkwater before Chelsea won the Premier League with a midfield of just Kante and Nemanja Matic.
Rodgers dropped Choudhury from the starting XI and then dropped James Maddison, a player who would’ve been a traditional No. 10 a decade ago, from the front three and into the midfield. Since the 1-0 loss to Manchester United in the middle of September, Leicester have won 12, drawn one and lost three. Their performances have kicked into a much higher gear, too: They’ve created 29.9 expected goals and conceded just 20.5. At the heart of it all, Ndidi has been an absolute machine.
Truly dominant players tend to create easily digestible stat bytes — read every Lionel Messi article I’ve ever written — and Ndidi is no different. It’s simple: He has won more tackles (53) and made more interceptions (56) than any other player in the Premier League. Add up the defensive work of his midfield partners, Tielemans and Maddison, and neither their combined tackles (43) nor their interceptions (26) come close to matching Ndidi’s mark. He’s doing the dirty work all by himself.
However, that doesn’t even do his dominance justice. Leicester average more possession than all but 13 teams across England, Italy, Spain and Germany’s top flights. Part of that is because Ndidi is able to keep winning them the ball back, but that also means there are fewer opportunities for him to make defensive plays. TruMedia, though, offers defensive statistics that normalise possession for every 1,000 opponent touches. Ndidi is averaging 7.33 tackles and 4.74 interceptions per 1,000 opponent touches. Both marks are top in the four aforementioned leagues.
Want someone to go and get the ball for you? Right now, there’s no one in the world better than Ndidi.
Now, he doesn’t do a ton more once the ball is won, but he does just enough. He completes an above-average proportion of his passes (around 86%) and plays a central role in moving the ball into the attacking third. Among Leicester players, only Tielemans and Maddison have completed more passes into that area. Plus, with Ndidi on the field, Leicester are able to have two players in their midfield who can move the ball into the penalty area — both Tielemans and Maddison are in the top 20 of the league in passes into the box — in addition to three attackers in front of them. Their ceiling now is so much higher than it was back in September.
Although Leicester are second in the table, they’re probably due for some regression. The three matches against Liverpool and Manchester City were a reality check. Across those three games, they generated 1.2 expected goals and conceded 9.2. Jamie Vardy is also finishing his chances at a Messi-esque rate of 14 non-penalty goals on just 8.8 expected. Through the first 21 games, Leicester have the fifth-best expected-goal differential in the league. But since they decided to let Ndidi control the middle all by himself, they’ve been significantly better than that.
Thanks to the financial gap between them and the 14 other clubs, the Premier League’s Top Six were supposed to be unbreakable, but Ndidi & Co. have shattered that idea. With a 14-point lead over fifth-place Manchester United, they’re heavy favourites to return to the Champions League next season.
Ndidi certainly belongs there. Whether it’s with Leicester or some other bigger, richer team that decides it wants its own one-man midfield, he should be at the top of the game for a long, long time. For any aspiring Xabi Alonsos out there or anyone who wants to dribble a ball over the next decade, here’s a scary thought: Ndidi turned 23 only a couple weeks ago.
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