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OPINION: Arsenal target Rice a portrait of the future Ndidi could have had

Declan Rice is set to be the subject of a Big Six bidding war in the summer. Why did it never happen in the same way for Wilfred Ndidi, once Europe's best tackler?

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On Monday, reports in the UK press detailed Arsenal’s interest in West Ham midfielder Declan Rice.

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The England international, who is out of contract in the summer of 2024, is highly sought after; the Gunners are only the latest to publicly register their intent, with the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea prior admirers.

Rice has made a point of his desire to play in the Champions League, and has reportedly turned down multiple contract renewal offers at the London Stadium. Even though the Hammers will not sell cheap, he has taken his destiny in his own hand.

It is difficult, however, as all of England’s footballing royalty make a beeline for the 24-year-old, to not think of Wilfred Ndidi.

The Nigeria international, two years older than Rice, has only recently reclaimed his place in the Leicester City starting line-up, but nothing encapsulates the abrasion of his influence more than the fact that he ever lost it to begin with. Even following his recovery from injury in October, Boubakary Soumare was often used in his stead; it is only now, following a hamstring injury to the Frenchman, that Ndidi has started two games in a row for the Foxes.

It is a remarkable loss of prominence for a player who, not that long ago, was headlining tackles and interceptions leaderboards across Europe’s top five leagues. So high was Ndidi’s stock that he was frequently getting linked to defensive midfield vacancies at clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid. As recently as last summer, Red Devils legend Paul Scholes was still talking him up as “very much [fitting] the bill of what Manchester United are looking for.”

All of that rumoured interest never materialised, of course. Now, Ndidi finds himself at something of a crossroads, as repeated injuries appear to have broken not just his body, but his ability to dominate football matches. He also stands as a cautionary tale: when it comes to maximising transfer potential, it is important to strike while the iron is hot.

Clearly, it is a lesson that Hammer Rice is aware of.

Buttressing the sense of a missed opportunity for Ndidi is the fact that, at the same age as Rice is now, the Nigeria international had his last great year. 2020/21 now seems the final season of his ‘octopus’ phase, the denouement of a four-season run in which he consistently finished inside the top five for both tackles (won) and interceptions in the Premier League.

In that season, Leicester won their first (and only) trophy since their domestic title in 2016, triumphing in the FA Cup. That was the apogee of Ndidi’s desirability; it was also, incidentally, the season when he began to pick up persistent knocks, a brutal workload finally starting to catch up with him. A torn abductor muscle injury, sustained in September 2020, effectively signalled an end to his invincibility, even though he rallied for one final salvo that term.

It was at that point, arguably, that Ndidi needed a decisive next step. In much the same way that Rice currently dominates the centre of the park for West Ham, Ndidi was viewed as a one-man breakwater, the rock on which the Leicester team was built. Underlining his talismanic presence was the fact that he was repeatedly rushed back into action following lay-offs and was barely ever rested, even late in matches with the result secure.

That the moment passed Ndidi by can, to an extent, be explained by a further similarity between the two men that, ironically enough, also underlines the difference in paths. Both began their careers as centre-backs before transitioning into the next band and displaying their aptitude there. It was only in 2018, at the age of 19, that Rice began to play regularly in the middle of the park, and even then it was widely expected he would revert in time; the same is true for Ndidi, whose full conversion to midfield took place at Genk in the 2015/16 season when he turned, you guessed it, 19.

However, while Rice’s repertoire continued to swell in the cauldron of the Premier League, so much so that utilising him deep in midfield is now seen as limiting his output, Ndidi never quite kicked on in the same way. Concerns over the Nigeria international’s ability on the ball have always been there, but tracking both players’ metrics at the same age reveals an unmissable pattern: while Rice clearly got better and more expressive in possession, Ndidi’s work largely remained the same.

It is the sheer breadth of Rice’s functionality in possession that now sees him actively and publicly sought after in a way that Ndidi never was. While winning the ball back will always hold value (see the fanfare with which Casemiro’s effect on Manchester United has been greeted), there is a ceiling on the pure tackler that comes upon the team by extension. It demands a partner to take the burden of playing, therefore limiting numbers ahead of the ball with which to stretch opponents. 

Faced with a deep block and an opponent with limited ambitions beyond keeping things tight, Ndidi’s talents would be moot; Rice’s would find expression still. That, really, is the principal difference.

It is one that cuts to not just the heart of modern football, but that also says something about the nature of opportunity. In optimising for the present and not the desired future, and with injuries now seeming to take their toll, the boat of a high-profile transfer may already have sailed for Ndidi.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Pulse Sports

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