Meet Wilfred Ndidi: The all-action midfielder who really could be Leicester's new Kanté
The 60-second story
Ndidi became the Belgian outfit's most important player with his ability to cover ground and break up opposition moves in the engine room
There are many plausible explanations for the difficulties encountered by Premier League champions Leicester this season, but the failure to adequately replace N'Golo Kante is arguably the most significant factor in their struggles. Summer signing Papy Mendy doesn't appear to be up to the task, which has led Claudio Ranieri back into the transfer market in search of a solution.
In Wilfred Ndidi, the Italian might just have found one. The 20-year-old is set to join the Foxes from Genk in January, capping off a remarkable rise in a short space of time. After switching from central defence to central midfield at the beginning of last season, Ndidi became the Belgian outfit's most important player with his ability to cover ground and break up opposition moves in the engine room.
The Nigeria international's performances earned him admiring glances from right across Europe; Leicester reportedly beat the likes of Manchester United to his signature.
Why you need to know him
He was tall and lanky, impossible to miss. His calmness was very unusual for such a young player
A few short years ago, Ndidi's parents saw football as a waste of time. The son of a Nigerian army sergeant, Wilfred grew up in a military camp near Lagos and was constantly told to stop kicking a ball around on the street and concentrate on his studies instead. Then, at the age of 15, he was discovered by the Nath Boys academy - "one of the best training centers in Nigeria... they don't just teach you football, but also prepare you for life," Ndidi said in a Sport/Voetbalmagazine interview.
Nath Boys won three Lagos Junior League titles in a row, and scouts watched their young talents very closely. Roland Janssen, the Belgian who now works for Manchester United, spotted Ndidi in 2013 and was immediately impressed. "He was tall and lanky, impossible to miss. His calmness was very unusual for such a young player."
Genk invited the 16-year-old, who was oozing with self-confidence, for a trial. "Foreign players must be better than our academy graduates to stand any chance," commented youth coach Domenico Olivieri. "Ndidi stood out with his exceptional qualities."
He was immediately snapped up, becoming the first ever Nath Boys graduate to make it to Europe; by the start of 2015, he was ready to join the senior squad and play in the top flight of Belgian football.
Ndidi initially played as a centre-half, but his versatility saw him deployed as a full-back under the guidance of Alex McLeish. Peter Maes, who replaced the Scotsman in the summer of 2015, decided that the Nigerian's talents would be of greater use in midfield, largely because he had the lung power to keep running for 90 minutes.
The change of position proved an instant success: Ndidi became one of the best defensive midfielders in Belgium, adding more and more to his game with each passing week. An eye for goal was soon discovered: his incredible volley in the 4-2 win over Club Brugge was one of the srikes of the season, while he also earned plaudits for a low drive in the 5-2 demolition of Anderlect.
Ndidi then took his talents to the continental stage this season, featuring in every minute of Genk's 12 Europa League matches and finishing as one of the top runners and tacklers in both the qualifying rounds and group stage. Now it's time for him to try his hand in one of the greatest leagues in the world.
Ndidi's also strong in the air and a great asset at set-pieces in both boxes
There is little doubt that Ndidi has potential to become a true world-class defensive midfielder. His ball-winning skills are supreme and his tackles superb – most of them are clean and perfectly timed, as evidenced by the fact he is yet to be sent off. Just like Kante, he enjoys running all the time.
Unlike the now-Chelsea enforcer, though, Ndidi is tall at 6ft 1in. He is extremely good in the air, which makes him a great asset from set pieces in both penalty areas – one of his goals against Bilbao was scored with a brilliant header.
Meanwhile, Ndidi's mentality is described as perfect by everyone. He is a true team player, unselfish and ready to help his team-mates. He is disciplined tactically, works hard in training and always follows instructions on the pitch. His friendly character made Maes describe him as a "golden boy".
Ndidi's still learning the ropes when it comes to contributing in the final third, which is understandable given that he started out as a defender. There's room for improvement when it comes to his passing, although he has shown progress in that regard in the last few months.
"Ndidi can be compared to Yaya Toure," Genk coach Maes said of the midfielder. "He should become a top player."
Did you know...
The word Ndidi means "patience" in Igbo language, while his original first name Onyinye means "a gift from God". The Igbo people have provided some of Nigeria's greatest footballers, including Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu and Sunday Oliseh.
What happens next?
Leicester will hope that Ndidi can become the new - albeit taller - Kante in the heart of their midfield. If everything goes according to plan, the youngster should also cement his starting place in the national team and could be one to watch at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.