Saturday marked five consecutive wins for the revitalised Foxes. With four of those victories coming in league action, the defending champions took yet another step to ensuring their Premier League status for next season. The juxtaposition between this term and last has been staggering, however, the recent Craig Shakespeare-led renaissance has breathed new life into the side and has once again seen the Foxes transformed into a cunning, calculated predator.
Many, quite rightly so, cited N’Golo Kanté’s departure as the main factor behind the teams’ swift demise. The Frenchmen’s continued monstrous displays for Champions elect Chelsea have given further credence to this notion and with Leicester failing to adequately replace Kanté in the summer, their tried and trusted 4-4-2 formation began to unravel.
Taking on the added responsibility of ball recoveries, Danny Drinkwater’s usual game of dictating the tempo with a wonderful range of passing suffered significantly. This coupled with Matty James and Namplays Mendy’s injuries, and a lack of quality from either Daniel Amartey or club stalwart Andy King forced Leicester’s hand to delve into the infamously awkward January market.
Subsequently, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Having previously tracked Genk midfielder Wilfred Ndidi for 18-months, Leicester’s relentless determination to push a deal through mid-season saw them capture the signature of the Nigerian in spite of interest from bigger clubs. His performances across Belgium and in the Europa League had pricked the ears of Manchester United and Arsenal, but with both clubs hoping to revisit the possibility of a move in the summer, they missed the boat.
At only 20 years of age Ndidi was expected to take time to acclimatise to the frantic pace of the Premier League but as he’s proved, no such transitional period was necessary. His wiry 6ft 2 frame resembles more Yaya Touré than Kanté and his formative displays on English shores looked to signal a more comparable skill set to the Ivorian as well. A stunning 25-yard strike against east-midland rivals Derby showcased his penchant for long-shots.
More recent showings have indicated he also possesses the requisite qualities to complement Drinkwater. In Shakespeare’s first game Ndidi notched no fewer than 11 tackles against Liverpool, a statistic that matched Kanté’s best output in any single game last campaign. Another stunning goal from distance against Stoke last weekend has made all fans sit up and take notice of this young starlet who has been integral to Leicester’s rejuvenation.
That brings us on to Demarai Gray. With Kanté ostensibly suitably replaced, questions have turned to Riyad Mahrez. Last season’s player of the year has looked a shadow of his former self and seems likely to depart in the summer. New signing Ahmed Musa has failed to impress in either a forward role or on the wing so once again, the Foxes have turned to a January recruit – this time from the year before.
Used sporadically this season and last, fans have only caught glimpses of the quality at the feet of the England under-21 international. The reasoning for his fleeting appearances have been down to a combination of the electric brilliance of Mahrez and a perceived lack of work-rate, something fellow teammate Marc Albrighton offers in abundance.
Having starred and also scored alongside Ndidi in Leicester’s FA Cup replay versus Derby, Gray dazzled spectators, showing what he’s capable of when given creative freedom. This weekend saw the Birmingham youth-product turn in a man of the match display against Stoke, despite only starting due to Albrighton being taken ill. The precocious talent yet again demonstrated his guile and panache and offered a solution to the expected loss of Mahrez, outshining the Algerian on the day.
Gray is only 20 years-old and both players look to have a big future in the game. It is highly unlikely Leicester will ever hit the heights of 2016 again, however – in Ndidi and Gray – they have a more than solid platform upon which to build.