15 August 2019
Since Wilfred Ndidi departed King Power Stadium in May after Leicester City’s final fixture of 2018/19, it’s been summer unlike any other for the 22-year-old midfielder.
A fairly hectic few weeks saw him get married in Nigeria, before playing in every game to help his nation to a third-placed finish at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
And while the Super Eagles star has had a limited amount of time off due to international duties, Brendan Rodgers deemed him match ready to start Sunday’s clash with Wolves, labelling him as ‘naturally fit’ ahead of the game.
“I had about eight days off before the Africa Cup of Nations,” Ndidi told LCFC.com. “I had to prepare for my wedding, before the training camp with Nigeria.
“It was a good day, everything went well and everything was fantastic. It took place in Nigeria, and there was a good turnout from my friends and family. Both families were happy, and we enjoyed ourselves.”
Just over a week later, the City No.25 linked up with his Nigeria team-mates in Egypt as they attempted to add to their three AFCON titles in north-east Africa.
The Super Eagles coped well in soaring temperatures, qualifying for the knockout stages with a game to spare after wins over Burundi and Guinea.
“It was almost the same climate as Nigeria, so it wasn’t too difficult for us,” he said. “Some players have played in Europe since they were young, but for us, we grew up in Nigeria so we’re used to the weather. As a group, we worked together.
“There are a lot of characters in the national team – some are funny, some are silly. They’re a good bunch of guys. The funniest has to be John Ogu. He’s a big guy and he’s among the senior guys.
“From the first day we started at the training camp, I roomed with Moses Simon, who plays in Spain. I’ve always known him because we played for the Under-20s together. He’s quite loud, but he’s a cool guy.”
Nigeria advanced to the semi-finals after a stunning comeback triumph over Cameroon and a last-minute win against South Africa.
However, after levelling late on against Algeria in the last-four, former Fox Riyad Mahrez scored a stunning 95th-minute free-kick to deny Nigeria a spot in the final.
“The aim was to go to the final, but for Riyad!” said the midfielder. “But we will take it, because losing the semi-final and going for the top place, we had no other option than to take third.
The central midfielder featured in every 2019 AFCON fixture over the summer.
“That’s better than coming out with nothing. We learnt a lot. Nobody believed in the team to actually go that far. We got to the semi-finals, and people started to see how well the team can play.”
The Nigerians ended their 2019 AFCON campaign as winners of the third-place play-off against Tunisia, and less than two weeks later, Ndidi was back in Leicester preparing for the 2019/20 Premier League campaign.
“I had about 11 days off, and then I came back to the Club,” he said. “I didn’t go anywhere, I just stayed in Nigeria and then reported back.
“From my first day back, I felt really happy. The manager pushes everyone and tries to get everyone in good shape, so I have to blend into the group. There is no space for excuses, you have to do what you have to do.
“For me, it’s about maintaining fitness. If it’s natural, I try to maintain it by keeping things simple and by eating the right food. A lot of it is about discipline, you need your body to play the game, so you have to treat your body right.”
For the past two years, Ndidi has recorded more tackles than any other player in the Premier League, solidifying himself as one of the most talented defensive midfielders in England’s top flight.
But it is only in recent seasons that the Lagos-born Leicester star has thrived in the heart of midfield, having previously played as a centre-back in Belgium.
He continued: “I’ve only played in central midfield for three years now, because when I moved to Belgium, Genk bought me as a central defender. I’d always played in centre-back.
Wilfred Ndidi played 90 minutes during Leicester City’s season opener versus Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“In the first season, I came in January, ended in May and I was a centre-back and sometimes a right-back and left-back. The new manager came in in the new season, and he converted me into a no.6, a midfielder. When you find yourself in that situation, you have to adapt.
“My only thing is that I try to get better. I don’t want to be seen as just that, I want to try and get better.
“I’ll always play with my qualities, they are the qualities that allow me to play in the team, but I don’t have to rely on it. I just have to try and make myself better. I still need to contribute to the team by playing, not just by winning the ball back.”
It is no surprise that Ndidi grew up idolising one of the most talented defensive midfielders to emerge from Nigeria, and even had the chance to play alongside him for his national team.
“Growing up, I saw Jon Obi Mikel at Chelsea and I always liked him,” said Ndidi. “I’ve met him and played with him.
“My first feeling, when I came to the national team, the first time I saw him it was my debut in the qualifiers and I actually came on for him. It was a great memory for me.
“Being in the training camp with him, he’s a lovely guy and he’s great with everyone. He’s a great captain for the team.”
Chelsea, where Mikel won two Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League and three FA Cups, are City’s next opponents, and while they have suffered back-to-back disappointments to Manchester United and Liverpool, Ndidi knows how tough the challenge at Stamford Bridge will be.
Wilfred Ndidi attempts to recover the ball from Wolves attacker Diogo Jota.
He added: “Despite the fact that they’ve lost two games, it will be a difficult game and we will have to be alert. We got a point against Wolves, but we can be better going into the Chelsea game. We’ll go there to try and get something out of it.
“Every game we learn, and we take to the next game. For Wolves, they’re a very good team. We actually kept the ball in possession and that’s difficult against Wolves.
“Playing like that, it gives us more confidence to go forward. They have a good record away from home and I think we did well defensively. We have to try and create more chances now.”
By Richard Mellor. This article first appeared on the Leicester City FC website.