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Is Wilfred Ndidi still good enough to start in midfield for Nigeria?

September 21st 2022, 12:32:32 pm

The Leicester man is set for a return to the international fold, but things have changed quite a bit since his last involvement at the Africa Cup of Nations

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One of the interesting subplots around Nigeria’s upcoming friendly against Algeria (if it holds any kind of intrigue at all, considering) is the return of the influential Wilfred Ndidi to the international fold.

The Leicester man will be introduced to Jose Peseiro for the first time this window, having missed out on the Portuguese manager’s first set of assignments. A tranche of four matches in late May and early June allowed the former Venezuela and Sporting Lisbon boss properly get his feet under the table.

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Having navigated those games without the benefit of Ndidi, Peseiro will finally have the option of selecting the 25-year-old who for so long has been a stalwart of the Nigeria midfield and an irreplaceable presence.

Except that may no longer be the case.

Taken as a whole, 2022 has been a disappointing year for Wilfred Ndidi. The midfielder has struggled for fitness, years of chronic mismanagement and overuse at club level finally coming home to roost.

Having beaten the odds for so long, the bill was bound to come due at some point. Whatever people say, no one actually has more than two lungs, and the sheer volume of work Ndidi has had to get through for years without proper rest and support has led to this.

So far this term, the Nigeria international has looked a shadow of himself, going through the motions but lacking the same degree of effectiveness. Some of that is a byproduct of the pervasive dysfunction at Leicester, to be fair. However, getting caught in possession and giving away clumsy fouls are, to an extent, individual failings of which Ndidi has been guilty. If you are not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

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International football then should offer a measure of respite. After all, Ndidi is one of a few whose output for the Super Eagles has remained fairly constant for years, regardless of club form. At the Africa Cup of Nations at the start of the year, he was unmistakably one of the outstanding performers up until elimination in the Round of 16 at the hands of Tunisia, and a causative line can be drawn from his absence during the two-legged World Cup play-off against Ghana in March to Nigeria’s failure to book a place in Qatar.

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Times have changed, however. In his absence, the furniture has moved around quite a bit: not only is there a new coach in charge, but the reinvention of Alex Iwobi as a central midfielder has complicated things further.

Since taking the reins, Peseiro has been partial to a 4-4-2 shape, with an uber-attacking midfield pairing of Iwobi and Joe Aribo starting the first three matches and Oghenekaro Etebo coming in for the Southampton man in the drubbing of Sao Tome.

Peseiro has defended this bold tactic by stating his commitment to attacking football, and is clearly willing to accept a measure of defensive vulnerability if it means his team will consistently create chances. Within this framework, there is no dedicated no.6: the two central midfielders take turns both in terms of receiving the ball from the defenders and supporting the attackers.

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If you’re thinking this does not sound like Ndidi, you’re correct. While earlier on in his career the Leicester man would occasionally sortie forward, his role and inclinations have shifted markedly toward the more defensive aspects as time has progressed.

The main objective of this has been to maximise his ball-winning and reading of the game, but some of it is to do with masking his weaknesses in possession. Build-up play is by no means a strength of his, a fact that is mitigated by the presence of Youri Tielemans alongside in the Foxes’ midfield. It is the Belgian who more frequently shows for the ball to get the team moving forward; Ndidi’s passing is mostly geared toward retention.

Peseiro wanting his team to attack quickly through the thirds immediately calls into question the Leicester man’s utility in midfield. It would be foolhardy to dismiss him out of hand (this is a hugely talented footballer, after all), but a starting place for the national team is by no means a given, especially if Peseiro is minded to make his own judgements and disregard previous service.

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The absence of Aribo may well offer Ndidi a measure of respite, in any case. However, it is worth noting that Etebo did impress against Sao Tome, crashing a free kick off the crossbar, and that a maiden call-up has been handed to Club Brugge’s Raphael Onyedika, who while less experienced is a more expansive presence.

Indeed, all things considered, the likeliest role for Ndidi at this point might very well be at the heart of the defence, where those who have been called up have asterisks against their names. Between them, William Troost-Ekong, Valentine Ozornwafor, Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem have played 1550 minutes (the equivalent of 17 matches) in total this season, and it is not altogether clear what the returning Kevin Akpoguma even is.

With Calvin Bassey more or less established as first choice on the left of the centre-back pairing, the other role is up for grabs. It is one that Ndidi is somewhat familiar with, as he started out playing centre-back and has filled in there on numerous occasions for Leicester. Granted, the results have been mixed, but it may very well be that is where Nigeria’s best midfielder gets in at this time.

If he were to win over Peseiro, and in the process a place in midfield, it would genuinely be the most impressive thing Ndidi has done this season.

Solace Chukwu
Solace is a respected columnist across various international platforms, he has close to a decade of experience reporting on African football. He can be found on Twitter: @TheOddSolace.

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