Enzo Maresca decision on key player has led to Leicester City’s biggest turnaround in the championship

Wilfred Ndidi scored for the third game in a row against Stoke, as his resurgence as an offensive danger continued after two years of mediocrity in defensive midfield.

Wilfred Ndidi played 13 minutes plus injury time in Leicester City’s 2-0 win over Stoke, yet no player had more shots. All three of his attempts were inches away from being successful, with one being blocked close the line, another being deflected over, and one going just wide.

He then set up Jamie Vardy for his third assist in three Championship games, possibly with a wonderful pass, possibly with a crazy fourth try at goal. The previous game, he won the penalty that gave City the victory. This would be unusual for a guy who has built his name at the other end of the field in any other season. However, not this year.

Ndidi has now contributed to seven goals for City in 14 outings across all competitions. Only Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall (eight) has contributed more. Nobody would have predicted that a few months ago. In fact, few expected Ndidi to have any role at City at all.


Wilfred Ndidi's return like new signing will propel Leicester City


Ask Enzo Maresca what he wants from each position in his City setup, and Ndidi of the last six-and-a-half seasons does not fit into any of them. There is no position on Maresca’s team that requires a rambunctious, long-legged destroyer to win tackles and interceptions. The player at the base of the midfield is now in charge of building the game. Ndidi’s polar opposite is Harry Winks.

But just when Ndidi’s career at the King Power Stadium looked to be over, Maresca got pragmatic. He was short on players to operate in the two number eight roles and saw attributes in Ndidi that he felt could work. Now, 14 games in, Ndidi is one of only two players, along with Dewsbury-Hall, to have featured in every match. His tally of three goals – two in the Carabao Cup and one in the Championship – matches his best scoring season for the club.

Speaking to the club after he waltzed around Southampton defenders to score at St Mary’s, Ndidi joked that he’d shown his “striker’s instinct”, sarcastically acting as if it’s the type of goal he scores every week. His reaction to scoring may be as pleasing as the goal itself. Watching Ndidi now, it feels like a weight has been lifted. In the two years leading up to City’s relegation, most players suffered a drop in form, but perhaps none as starkly as Ndidi. City’s defence looked so vulnerable in part because Ndidi was no longer protecting them well. The number of tackles and interceptions he was making fell through the floor.

City had relied on Ndidi for so long. Because they had the Nigerian behind them to bail them out, the offensive players were given the license to venture forward and take risks. When he stopped providing security, not only did City’s defense appear more susceptible, but their attackers became afraid to be creative for fear of setting up counters for the opposition. That puts a lot of strain on Ndidi’s shoulders.

Moving him forward lessens some of the burden. There is a freedom that comes with being a more offensive player that perhaps the rest of the world does not expect. The huge, beaming smile has returned. Maresca begins to smile as soon as Ndidi’s name is spoken.

“I don’t know if he’s more or less happy, but the only thing I can say is that he’s very happy,” the manager remarked last month of the midfielder. “He’s having fun and is open to new experiences.” He’s trying to learn something new and making an effort to grasp and learn it.

“He’s doing a great job of arriving in the box.” He’s not doing that well in terms of staying in position and moving correctly in the pocket. He’s usually higher, close to the opposing central defense, but he has to descend a little bit further at times. But, as I already stated, it is new to him and not simple. But he’s almost always in the box.”

If Ndidi improves in the areas highlighted by Maresca, continues to score, and contributes to City’s promotion, it could be the manager’s biggest success story of the season. But it will take time to see if that is the case. For the time being, let us rejoice that a City legend is once again having fun.


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