Gana Gueye’s UCL Struggles; A Warning To Wilfred Ndidi


At the heart of every discussion around growth is the question of scale – the capacity for a service to maintain utility higher up in the value chain.

The question of growth is relevant to football as well; seeing as footballers are constantly being traded, based on their performances, to more prestigious clubs, it is worth examining whether their skillsets will transfer well from a lower to a higher level.

This is all the more relevant to Nigeria international Wilfred Ndidi who has, since joining Leicester City in January 2017, been hailed as one of the Premier League’s finest defensive midfielders. The 24-year-old has regularly topped tackling numbers not just in England, but across Europe, and has been instrumental in the Foxes’ push for a Champions League finish this season.

What Role Ndidi Plays For Leicester

Ndidi doing solid work at Leicester’s midfield

His consistency and conscientiousness in doing the “dirty work” in the middle of the park have also fuelled the notion among many that he is “underrated” and deserves to be playing at a bigger club than Leicester.

Ignoring the obvious irony of this, the basic logic holds some merit: we can all agree that excellence deserves, not only acknowledgement but reward in the form of promotion (which bigger clubs with greater budgets are better equipped to provide).

However, the pesky matter of scale is a caveat here: is what Ndidi does (well) enough at a higher level, factoring in the more exacting demands?

Well, there are case studies for and against, and incidentally both played important roles in the Champions League semi-finals this week. The obvious ‘for’ is Leicester alumnus N’Golo Kante, a player who Ndidi has time and again sought to distance himself from.

Now at Chelsea, the Frenchman starred against Real Madrid on Tuesday night, snapping up the Man of the Match award for an all-action display both with and without the ball.

The ‘against’ is a player against whom Ndidi was cast as a rival during his time in England with Aston Villa.

Who is Gana Gueye?

Gana Gueye’s performance was strong in the first half against Man City

Idrissa Gueye had a proverbial game of two halves in Paris during the visit of Manchester City, ending the game with a second booking and an early shower as Paris Saint-Germain’s first-half dominance gave way in the second half.

Both are players, roughly in Ndidi’s mould, have transitioned from smaller clubs to bigger ones. The results have been mixed: while Kante has largely flourished with the Blues, Gueye has been shown up by a higher level and has notably struggled against teams that force PSG onto the back foot through concerted pressing.

The Senegalese enforcer was strong in the first half when, as Kevin De Bruyne admitted after the game, Manchester City tried to play too quickly and the game was a little stretched.

As soon as the visitors reverted to a more patient game in possession and coordinated their pressing better without it, Gueye unravelled at the seams, first giving away the free-kick that resulted in Riyad Mahrez’s winner and then getting sent off late on.

By contrast, Kante has shown time and again his ability to weather heavy pressing. His ball retention under pressure, agility to turn away from challenges, and how he receives the ball all contribute to a player who, despite being famed for his ball-winning, is also strong in possession.

It paints a very instructive picture of what scales at a higher level and what doesn’t. For all that Ndidi is an outstanding competitor in midfield, he has yet to properly demonstrate aptitude under pressure, and, notably, Leicester does not build-up play through him directly.

Ndidi Must Improve To Scale Up

Ndidi needs to improve his level of composure under pressure

Often, he is used to either change the angle of the build-up or as a decoy for the centre-backs to pass forward themselves. In tight, risky situations, Brendan Rodgers does not look to him as an outlet in the same way that Chelsea does with Kante.

Without that level of composure under pressure, tackling (by itself) simply does not scale. Gueye has found that out the hard way: he has been largely competent, especially in Ligue 1, but some of his worst performances – away vs Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund last season, at home vs Manchester City this week – have come in the Champions League, where the stakes are highest and weakness is most effectively preyed upon.

Amidst the clamour for him to move to a bigger club, Ndidi would do well to keep that in mind.

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