The Foxes are winless in two games without the midfield anchor, demonstrating how important he is to Brendan Rodgers’ European ambitions
To be fair to the Premier League’s third-placed side, 12 games in all competitions since the start of December gives that notion a bit of credence, especially when one considers that they’d played 16 times between August and the end of November.
What must not be ignored, however, is how Wilfred Ndidi’s absence on Saturday coincided with the Foxes’ worst performance of the season, and perhaps the poorest since Brendan Rodgers took charge in February.
Before Saturday, the midfielder had only missed two games this season; the first against Sheffield United in August due to a hamstring injury, as well as the 2-1 win over West Ham United on December 28, a game for which he was rested.
Ndidi’s non-appearance against the Blades was the first time Leicester were without their dependable star in the league since May 2018, a statistic that truly demonstrates just how much the East Midlands club lean on him.
For a bit of context, top scorer Jamie Vardy missed the Foxes’ recent encounters with West Ham and Newcastle United, but it wasn’t costly as they won fairly easily without him, especially in the 3-0 win at St James’ Park.
Rodgers has the personnel to fill in – to an extent – if the former England international is unavailable, but nobody in the Leicester midfield comes close to replacing Ndidi’s influence in the middle of the park.
Vardy is widely recognised as one of the best strikers in the top flight, but Ndidi is currently the best defensive midfielder in England, and a case could be made that he’s the most outstanding player in his position in Europe.
It’s perhaps no surprise that they’ve failed to win since the Nigeria international’s surgery last week, drawing 1-1 with Aston Villa in the League Cup and suffering their second home defeat of the campaign on Saturday.
In truth, they dominated the EFL Cup encounter with Villa, outshooting Dean Smith’s side 21-3, but had to settle for a first-leg draw courtesy of Ndidi’s compatriot Kelechi Iheanacho, who found the leveller in the 74th minute, moments after his introduction.
While the semi-final draw had more to do with their profligacy, Saturday was a consequence of the visitors overwhelming them all over the park.
The Foxes’ cause wasn’t helped by the fact that the in-form Saints were particularly motivated before the encounter too, owing to the 9-0 humiliation at St Mary’s Stadium in October which reportedly put Ralph Hasenhuttl on the brink of the sack. However, the board stuck by him regardless and are currently reaping the rewards.
Unfortunately for Rodgers and his troops, though, when they went into battle in gameweek 22, their combative midfielder wasn’t in their corner, and they suffered badly in his absence.
Southampton absolutely battered Leicester in that opening half. Credit to Ralph Hasenhuttl for the turnaround in the last two months. #LEISOU
— Oluwaseye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) January 11, 2020
Hasenhuttl’s side not only had more attempts than the Foxes, they also created the better chances at the King Power Stadium and may even, to the disgust of Leicester’s supporters, feel aggrieved they didn’t win by more.
Hamza Choudhury deputised for Ndidi, but, with all due respect to the academy product, what he offers the side pales in comparison to his Nigerian teammate.
Southampton had 16 attempts on the day, the highest any visiting side has had at the King Power this term, and it’s no coincidence it came with the West African missing.
If Rodgers’ estimation is correct, Ndidi will miss the next three to four weeks of action, and it could be seriously damaging to Leicester’s hopes of a top four finish.
Their next two fixtures in the league are winnable – Burnley at Turf Moor and West Ham United at home – but they most certainly will need their midfield general back for the games coming after.
Leicester have now failed to win their last three home games.
1-1 vs Norwich.
0-4 vs Liverpool.
1-2 vs Southampton.
Wheels coming off?
— Oluwaseye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) January 11, 2020
All three clubs are in the top half of the standings (top seven to be precise), while Chelsea and City are Leicester’s direct rivals for a Champions League slot.
In the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge, it was Ndidi who powered a second-half header past Kepa Arrizabalaga to earn the Foxes a deserved point in West London, and he’ll be a big miss if he’s absent on February 1.
Against City at the Etihad Stadium, with their anchor-man in the side, Rodgers’ side were totally outplayed by the champions who showed their undoubted class and superiority in a 3-1 win.
— Oluwaseye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) December 21, 2019
If Ndidi still isn’t fit for the teams’ meeting in the final week of February, it’ll be even tougher for Leicester to pick up a result against the resurgent Manchester outfit, who have now leapfrogged them into second.
The Foxes, on 45 points, trail City by three points, while having a six-point advantage over Chelsea. Nevertheless, if results in the next few weeks are unfavourable, Rodgers and his team will start focusing on the chasing pack, having spent the majority of the season watching Liverpool.
Tiredness may have prompted last week’s dire showing against Southampton on home turf, but Ndidi’s absence was arguably even more critical.
Admittedly, Leicester’s form in the first half of the campaign means they’ll likely be in contention for a top four slot till May, although Rodgers will need his team’s pillar back promptly to ensure they don’t fall off in this particular race to feature in Europe’s premier club competition next season.