How Nduka Ugbade Disvovered Wilfred Ndidi, Europe’s Top Tackler At Leicester
Despite combining his football career and education, Wilfred Ndidi has probably got a little tired of hearing N’Golo Kante’s name over the past couple of years.
After all, since the 23-year-old defensive midfielder joined Leicester in January 2017 he has regularly found himself compared to the Chelsea midfielder, who was an instrumental part of the Foxes’ title-winning team in 2015-16.
But maybe now is the time for the comparisons to stop.
Ndidi is not just filling the void left by Kante, he has developed into one of the best players in his position and is arguably the fulcrum in a Leicester team that is fighting for a top-four finish in the Premier League and at one stage looked like battling with Liverpool for top spot.
It is also probably no coincidence that Leicester’s title challenge – admittedly unlikely against an imperious Liverpool side – faded when Ndidi suffered an injury in early January.
His return is significant for the Foxes, who beat West Ham 4-1 on his comeback last week to end a three-game winless run, although the Foxes were eliminated by Aston Villa in the second leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final on Tuesday
So how did Ndidi develop into one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe?
It all started with a ball made of Sellotape…
Makeshift footballs and strict discipline – where it all began
There is something simplistic yet regimented about Ndidi’s role on the pitch – break up attacks, win back possession and pass. Rinse and repeat.
The type of footballer he is can perhaps be traced back to his upbringing.
Born in 1996 to a military father, Ndidi grew up in a Lagos barracks. Discipline and education were the priority while football was a passion his father frowned upon.
“Any time my dad went to work I would go and play,” Ndidi said in an interview with BBC World Service.
“I would then get the signal that he was coming and go back to what I was doing, so he didn’t know I’d been playing. I got caught several times but was still going. I love football. I just want to play.”
While many of his Leicester team-mates started their careers in the academies of professional football clubs, Ndidi’s football education came on the roads around the military barracks he grew up in.
“We would wrap sheets of papers up and using Sellotape make it into a ball,” he adds.
“There was no money to buy footballs.
“We played on the main road, using two tyres as goals. The big guys were using the good pitch, we had nothing to use and just played on the road.”
It was during these formative years that Ndidi came across a person who he credits as one of the most influential in his career.
Coaching the army barracks youth team was former Nigeria international Nduka Ugbade, a tough disciplinarian who pushed the young players to their limits both physically and mentally.
“Ugbade is one of the biggest names in African football,” Africa-based sports journalist Oluwashina Okeleji tells BBC Sport.
“His opinion is respected and if he speaks to you, you listen. There is no limit with him. No excuses. He is a hard trainer but will not stretch you beyond your ability.”
Still, the tough training was too much for some but, as a skinny teenager who was also smaller than his peers, Ndidi felt such a work ethic would benefit him.
‘Take the ball and pass’ – keeping it simple pays dividends
The discipline he developed from being coached by Ugbade meant he treated every game equally – competitive or friendly – and his big chance to impress the wider world came in a tournament in Nigeria, where international scouts were watching.
“There were about 40 teams that came for the tournament,” says Ndidi. “I got the ball and made a run, a one-two run into the middle. I gave a simple pass to the striker. No-one had seen him so I just gave it to him between the defenders and he went and scored. That was the only game I played.”
For Roland Janssen, a Genk scout at the tournament, that one game was enough. Impressed with the teenager’s work rate he invited Ndidi for a trial with the Belgian side.
“When I came to Belgium the coach was Alex McLeish and he was putting me at right-back and left-back,” Ndidi continues.
“Then a new coach came in and put me in midfield but it was so strange because the first game I played there I was substituted in the 32nd minute.
“After that I went back to basics – take the ball, look around, pass, take the ball, look around, pass.”
‘Kante is brilliant but there’s no-one better than Ndidi’
Keeping it simple has undoubtedly worked wonders for Ndidi and statistically he is now one of the best players in his position.
Such is his influence that when he missed three games this month for Leicester through injury, the Foxes failed to win any of them.
He missed two Premier League matches during that spell on the sidelines yet still tops the table for most tackles made in the top flight. And by some distance.
“I think he is the best in the Premier League at tackling and winning the ball back,” Ndidi’s team-mate James Maddison told BBC Radio.
“Kante is a brilliant player but actually winning the ball back and taking the ball off the opposition I don’t think there is anyone better than Wilfred.
“Sometimes you get a player like that and what he does doesn’t get talked about on the back pages, it doesn’t maybe get talked about on Match of the Day.
“However, us as team-mates know what he does and it lets players like myself and Youri Tielemans do our thing higher up the pitch because we know we have that solidarity behind us.”
Stopping attacks while studying at university
Ndidi’s statistics are all the more impressive when you consider he is combining being the best defensive midfielder in Europe with studying for a degree.
Having found himself with plenty of spare time after training, Ndidi last year enrolled onto a business management course at De Montfort University in Leicester.
“It is easy to get carried away with the bright lights of the big cities when you move to England, but that’s not Ndidi,” continues Okeleji.
“He is learning how to invest his money properly. Legends of the game have struggled in Africa after their playing careers have come to an end.
“Instead of going home and watching films he wanted to do something productive with his time.
“He may sometimes play PlayStation with his friends but otherwise it is just about football and studying.”
‘He wants to be his own man’
It takes a lot to frustrate Ndidi, described by those who see him behind the scenes at Leicester as one of the most laid-back players at the club.
At Genk, he was nicknamed Teddy Bear because of his calm demeanour and ability to take being the butt of some of the team’s jokes in good humour.
But comparisons with Kante are one thing he struggles to smile about.
“Any time someone mentions it to him it does upset him a bit
“There is obviously great respect there but now he wants to be his own man. He feels he has established himself in his own right,” adds Okeleji.
Most tackles in the Premier League (midfielders)
Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester) 86
Joao Moutinho (Wolves) 65
James Ward-Prowse (Southampton) 62
Emiliano Buendia (Norwich) 57
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton) 57