Player Zone: Wilfried Ndidi the perfect antidote to Arsenal’s lack of ball-winning quality

There was such a vast chasm in performance between Arsenal and Manchester City in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final that it feels almost futile to document the numerous differences between the two sides, but one of the most crucial was the frequency in which they won the ball back.

Indeed, just seven Arsenal players made tackles on Sunday, just three made more than one and none made more than two.

While that’s partly a consequence of Arsene Wenger’s containment tactics, it’s still a glaringly modest return for a side who set out to produce the perfect rearguard display and hit Pep Guardiola’s team on the counter-attack. When Arsenal famously beat City 2-0 at the Eithad in 2015, a style of performance they hoped to replicate in the Carabao Cup final, the Gunners made twelve more tackles and 24 more interceptions – winning the ball back 36 more times.

A damning gap and the obvious difference between the two Arsenal teams is how Sunday’s lacked a genuine ball winner in the engine room. Whereas Francis Coquelin produced one of his best performances for the Gunners at the Etihad three years ago, Wenger elected a midfield of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka in the cup final – three talented players in possession, but often ineffectual without it.

Following Coquelin’s departure to Valencia, the closest Arsenal now have to a ball-winner is Mohamed Elneny, but his all-round quality leaves much to be desired. It’s more a case of him being willing to undertake those duties rather than actually excelling at them.

And thus, adding the Premier League’s top ball-winner to Arsenal’s squad is a logical solution. That title currently belongs to Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi, who has made the most tackles of any player in the division this season and ranks joint-first throughout Europe (excepting Bruno Zuculini who has just left Hellas Verona for River Plate) for tackles per match as well, his only rival at 4.1 challenges each game being Atletico Madrid’s much-revered left-back Felipe Luis.

Players of Ndidi’s mould are certainly coming back into style, too. A few years ago, occupying space and anticipating play with interceptions was the real art of the defensive midfield trade. But amid an era in which counter-attacks reign supreme and dynamism is required in practically every position, a more classical breed of ball-winner has really come to the fore; the Nigerian international belongs in a similar bracket to Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate, City’s Fernandinho and Everton’s Idrissa Gueye – defensive-minded midfielders who also add energy into the game and seek the ball more proactively, often high up the pitch, than to the likes of Sergio Busquets or John Obi Mikel.

But Ndidi knows how to hold ground and provide a screen in front of the defence too, something Arsenal also painfully lack. Gunners defenders are often harshly criticised and in some instances rightly so, but it’s easily forgotten they have amongst the toughest job of any backline in the Premier League because there’s such little protection in front of them. Few defences are so readily and easily exposed, especially on the counter.

Ndidi though can be that extra layer of protection; he’s won the most aerial duels of any Premier League midfielder this season, easing the burden on his centre-backs, and committed the most fouls – while that may not win Arsenal the ball back and can lead to dangerous set pieces at times, it also vitally slows down the opposition on the counter.

Arsenal are without a player prepared to take such pragmatic steps to stopping the opposition from breaking; tellingly, only three Gunners players have averaged more than one foul per match this term – Xhaka, Ramsey and Kolasinac.

That’s not to suggest Ndidi’s game is perfect, and what will concern Wenger particularly is his pass success rate this season – just 76%. Fluidity in midfield is an integral part of Arsenal’s philosophy and even if the deepest-lying midfielder isn’t necessarily contributing to that by taking a more passive role in possession, he must at the very least be consistent on the ball. That side of Ndidi’s game requires obvious improvement, although apologists will argue Leicester’s direct passing style has skewed that statistic somewhat.

But aged 22, boasting 18 months of experience in English football and a fixture on the international scene with Nigeria, the potential is certainly there for the 14-cap international to quickly improve. He’s got age on his side and is being regularly exposed to top-level football on two different fronts, so the next few years could see Ndidi really flourish. And if he rediscovers last season’s scoring touch, thrice netting across all competitions with some incredible long-range finishes, he’ll only be more of an asset for a club of Arsenal’s calibre.

In terms of signing Ndidi this summer though, Arsenal may have their work cut out. Transfermarkt value him at £16.2million but Leicester could easy demand more than double that sum as his contract doesn’t expire until 2022, and the King Power Stadium outfit will be reluctant to lose a second key midfielder in the same transfer window with Riyad Mahrez’s summer departure now seemingly inevitable. But because Ndidi is so young, he could prove worth the investment in the long-term, should he inject vital ball-winning ability and balance into this Arsenal side.

So, Gunners fans, would you back a swoop for the Foxes ace? Let us know by voting below…