Injury and suspension to Leicester City’s centre-backs meant the Nigerian was deployed even deeper in a rejigged defence vs West Bromwich Albion
When it came to light that Leicester City were facing a defensive crisis before their opening Premier League game of the season, attentions switched to Wilfred Ndidi, who was tipped to feature in central defence.
With Johnny Evans and captain Wes Morgan unable to feature for varying reasons (the former is still serving a three-game suspension from last season while the latter got injured in a pre-season fixture vs Sheffield Wednesday), Brendan Rodgers knew he had only one fit centre-back in Caglar Soyuncu.
Primary right-back Ricardo Pereira was still out with a long-term injury, so new boy Timothy Castagne made his debut at the Hawthorns.
Given the unavailability of the aforementioned central defensive pair, one of the division’s best defensive midfielders had to do a job at the heart of the Foxes’ backline. It was the first time since August 2016 that Ndidi at featured in central defence for a competitive game, having played there for Belgian side Genk.
It should, however, be pointed out that the Super Eagle had been tried in that position by Rodgers in their last friendly preceding the new season vs Blackburn Rovers, a game that ended 1-1.
While the Northern Irish manager ostensibly used two alien players on the right side of his defence—Ndidi in a role he hadn’t played competitively in a while and Castagne, a new signing with an inclination to push forward—there was some logic to the call as the pair had been teammates in Belgium.
So which moments were of importance in Ndidi’s 90 minutes at the heart of the defence?
Sixth minute: The game started nervously for the interim centre-back as he conceded a cheap, needless corner in the sixth minute following a heavy pass under little pressure. It was intimated that this was probably due to an ingrained nature to hit passes that way from his deep position in midfield as opposed to when deployed at the back.
While that assumption may pass as reasonable, too much was being read into what was nothing but an overhit pass, which happens intermittently.
Seventh-ninth minute: Perhaps even more significant than exaggerating Ndidi’s heavy pass to Kasper Schmeichel was West Bromwich gaining inroads down the Foxes’ right side early on. Two quick-fire attacks were launched down that side, and the Nigeria star, forced to cover for the forward-thinking Castagne, was drawn out of position.
At the time it seemed this would be The Albion’s tactic for the entirety of the match. However, minutes later, Slaven Bilic’s troops channelled their attacks through their right and Leicester’s left.
Balls over the top caused some discomfort for the visitors in the early stages due, in part, to a makeshift backline and Rodgers’ high line.
20th minute: This was probably the turning point for Ndidi. Having initially struggled to track runs from deep, as did Leicester’s rejigged back four, the West African was well positioned to prevent being caught out by two through balls to Romaine Sawyers in the space of a minute.
36th-minute: The Nigerian covered well for central defensive partner Soyuncu to head away a cross from the home side’s right wing. With a few West Brom players positioned in the centre and the far post, the dangerous delivery could’ve been converted had the Nigerian not read the situation.
41st minute: Ndidi pushed forward to block a Darnell Furlong shot from outside the box that could have troubled Schmeichel. This was him demonstrating his usual tendency when playing in defensive midfield.
46th minute: Just after half-time, the makeshift defender ran onto a Semi Ajayi clearance-cum-long pass in behind Leicester’s defence to hook it away under pressure from an opponent. From the next phase of play, the 23-year-old headed a cross away from West Brom’s left flank..
50th minute: Presumably Ndidi’s most noteworthy contribution without possession came five minutes after the interval. West Brom striker, Callum Robinson, had threatened intermittently with his runs in behind up to that point, so when right centre-back Ajayi advanced unchallenged from his defensive position the Foxes risked being exposed with little pressure on the towering defender.
Ndidi’s compatriot spotted the forward’s run and looked set to play the pass over the top to take advantage of Leicester’s high line. However, the interim centre-back became alive to this danger and matched Robinson’s run, leaving the RCB suddenly without a passing option. Ultimately, with that passing option gone and the Nigerian isolated in an unfamiliar position on the right wing, he ultimately lost possession.
This came about by the Leicester man’s alertness to track the Irishman’s dart in behind. Crucially, Castagne opened the scoring six minutes later. Had Ndidi been flat-footed, Rodgers’ team may have found themselves trailing.
69th minute: With the Foxes now in control, Bilic, knowing how unreliable the West Midlands team have been at holding on to leads recently, switched to a more natural back four in what looked like a 4-2-3-1.
A minute later, a long ball over the top for Robson-Kanu—who’d replaced Robinson on the hour—caught Soyuncu out for a moment. However, Ndidi did well to stop the promising situation for the home side, partly helped by the forward’s under-hit pass, and the Foxes regained possession.
Jamie Vardy’s goal four minutes later knocked the stuffing out of WBA and stopped the possible onslaught in the final stages as the game petered out.
In the 78th minute, though, the temporary defender picked out Vardy with a brilliant ball between the lines that travelled some distance. This is significant because, per Fbref, Ndidi’s progressive passing throughout the game travelled the farthest distance across the Leicester team.
English striker, Vardy, netted again from the spot with six minutes of stoppage time to play to put some gloss on the score. The 3-0 result was a fitting way to start the new season given how the Foxes collapsed in 2019/20 to end fifth after many had them favourites to end third, in the Champions League spots.
On the whole, Ndidi performed admirably in central defence.
Admittedly, there was nothing too fancy but crucially, no obvious mistakes (except that close shave early on) were made on his return to central defence. Although, it should be noted that this showing came against a newly-promoted team that declined after a bright start on their part and Leicester's early uncertainty at the back.
The Nigerian did his bit at CB and may have no qualms featuring there against Burnley and away at Manchester City, which will be a daunting test if Rodgers trusts him over Foxes skipper Morgan.