In recent years, there’s been numerous examples highlighting how Arsenal have sought to copy, or even take from Leicester City’s overperformance.
There was the attempted move in 2016 to bring over newly minted Premier League winner Jamie Vardy for £22m, which the striker turned down, fearing he would be played out of position, against his natural strengths. And then only months ago, the Foxes’ manager Brendan Rodgers was forced to publicly rule out any interest in taking over at the Emirates, declaring his happiness at his current team.
But as the two teams prepare to meet on Tuesday evening, there’s another Leicester man Mikel Arteta and the Arsenal hierarchy should be taking an interest in.
He’s not the flashiest player for the Foxes, and isn’t likely grab the headlines after their Premier League clash but Wilfried Ndidi is exactly the player that the Gunners’ midfield is crying out for at the moment.
The Nigeria international is the steady anchor that keeps everything together on a consistent basis, without straying from his role at all.
Now before Arsenal fans get too excited – it’s highly unlikely that Rodgers’ side would let him go to a top-half rival. The 23-year old is far too valuable to their style of play and has been a seamless fit into the ‘Kanté-role’ that was the bedrock of their title success in 2016. Not to mention that he’s also tied down for the next five years, meaning a huge offer would be needed to pry him away.
But given that they currently lack a consistent midfield ‘destroyer’, who can also help recycle possession to his attacking teammates, he’s certainly the type of player that club officials should be targeting in the summer.
Often playing as the sole holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation, the Nigerian is chiefly responsible for protecting his back-four, while also ensuring his colleagues in James Maddison and Youri Tielemans can get the ball quickly enough to create for Vardy going forward.
He’s in the top-three of all Premier League players for successful tackles and interceptions made this season, highlighting just how terrific he is at winning the ball from opponents. When he does have the ball, the midfielder can be entrusted to use it efficiently, shown by his current pass completion rate of 85%.
I think he is the best in the Premier League at tackling and winning the ball back.
– James Maddison, Ndidi’s teammate
His importance has been shown when he’s been sidelined with injury, as Leicester failed to win any of the five games he missed mid-season, due to knee issues. Without him, the Midlands side have looked more vulnerable at the back and lack the tenacious, energetic presence that he brings in the centre of the park – which lets both Maddison and Tielemans shine in their attacking half.
Looking at Arsenal’s midfield by contrast, Ndidi is the exact type of player that they need. While Matteo Guendouzi has been given similar responsibilities for the Gunners, he’s been inconsistent in the role, and has been prone to poor decision-making at times – which is understandable, given he’s still 21 years old.
But if Arteta is to create an eventual title-winning team, he’ll need the Frenchman to develop into the mould of the Nigerian, or consider an upgrade, as no other player for the north London side carries the same qualities for the ball-winning midfield position – even Granit Xhaka isn’t a perfect fit for such duties.
Hence the interest in Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey makes a lot of sense – and if they were to sign the Ghanaian, he would certainly be deployed in the ‘destroyer’ role that Ndidi currently plays in for the Foxes.
For now though, Arsenal will line up on Tuesday evening without that tough-tackling, defensive shield-like presence in midfield. With Guendouzi’s future at the club uncertain, one of Joe Willock, Xhaka or on-loan Dani Ceballos will likely be tasked with doing the ‘dirty-work’ for Arteta’s side, which actually worked out well against Wolves last time out.
But Leicester’s midfield is a much tougher proposition to stop for the chosen individual – and with Ndidi at the base of their team, they’ll be able to freely attack Arsenal’s vulnerable backline – something the Gunners aspire to, and will do to other teams if they can find their own kind of Ndidi this summer.