One of the more inspiring stories in football is the story of N’golo Kante. His hard work and energy would see him grow into a professional footballer, rising through the leagues in France, ultimately winning a move to the Premier League. He started making a name for himself at Leicester City, as an important part of the miraculous title-winning side of 2015-16. He topped the defensive charts in the league with 175 tackles and 157 interceptions over the season. His exploits in the midfield earned him a move to Chelsea under Antonio Conte. He has been an integral part of the squad ever since. However, in this season and the last, there seems to be a lot of debate cropping up about his place in the team and utility in the tactical system. It has come to a point where his future at the club is being questioned. However, there is one undeniable fact in this debate – Kante is a world class player with at least a couple of seasons left in his peak.
Chelsea has seen its fair share of turnover in the hot seat over the last two decades. This leads to a lot of chop and change in tactics. Since Kante’s arrival, we have seen a rigid workhorse-like 343 under Conte, an attempt at vertical tiki taka in a 433 under Sarri and a more fluid 433/4231 under Frank Lampard. We need to understand who N’golo Kante is as a player in order to determine his position in the team.
At the core, N’golo Kante is a tireless tank of a player, covering every blade of grass on the pitch. His mental strength, tackling and uncanny ability to read the game defensively are his key attributes. Although not as gifted as others moving forward, he certainly holds his own. He passes with an accuracy in the high 80’s. Positionally, he is a box to box workhorse. Ultimately, he is any manager’s ideal player, who does what is asked of him, a model professional in every sense.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that he has evolved his game season after season. Under Claudio Ranieri at Leicester, he had a functional role – to break up attacks, prevent long shots and release the ball to the counter attacking players in a 442. Under Antonio Conte’s 343, Chelsea played more aggressively than Leicester, with Kante playing in a slightly more advanced position. Yet there are basic similarities in his role – he was part of a central two in both systems, with the options of releasing players down the wings. He would use his energy to break up attacks and make occasional runs forward. His attacking prowess did not come under scrutiny as the system was based on attacking the flanks. Defensively, he had more flexibility in his positioning owing to three center backs behind him. It is safe to say that he played his best football in those three seasons. With Chelsea shifting to a 433, Kante’s role would inevitably be different in a crowded midfield.
Under Sarri, Chelsea played a possession based 433 with a high press. Sarri’s 433 used a deep lying playmaker in Jorginho rather than a traditional defensive midfielder. Kante’s position was now farther up the pitch than under Conte. He had improved greatly in his attacking game, playing as one of the two ‘number eights.’ He was making better runs and reading space better. He is a player who can adapt. Kante really grew as a player under Sarri into a more complete midfielder, capable of playing higher up the pitch.
Frank Lampard plays a less rigid style of a 433 than Sarri. Kante has mainly started only as part of a midfield three. With Kante recovering from injury in the beginning of the season, Kovacic and Jorginho were primarily used in a 4231-double pivot. With Kante’s return, Chelsea shifted to a 433. Kante continues to play a similar role as he did under Sarri. Despite only playing in about 40% of the games, we have seen increased attacking output from Kante in Key Passes PG, Dribbles PG, Crosses PG and Long balls PG compared to 18/19. Despite Kante’s improved numbers, he has faced criticism regarding his suitability to the system. The issues with the current system are manifold – Defensive vulnerabilities, gaps between lines, lack of output against deep blocks to name a few.
While it may work, it seems simplistic to suggest we need to ditch the idea of a DLP and stick to a standard anchor man at the base of midfield. Declan Rice has been one of the names touted. However, I believe Lampard has a vision of how he wants Chelsea to play. He does not have the right personnel to implement his style yet. Lampard encourages his wingers to cut in to support Abraham. This creates spaces on the wing for Kante or the Right Wingback to run into. He also encourages both his CM’s to press higher. The freedom he affords his players on the pitch leads to spaces between lines at times.
In order to make it all click, Chelsea need a few additions. Specific to our discussion, Lampard needs a proper attacking CM to add to Hakim Ziyech’s capture. Playing a 433 with a DLP and an attacking CM, Kante can thrive breaking up attacks in the middle with lesser responsibility in final third. Ziyech, cutting in from the right is an improvement over our current group of right-footed wingers, thus affording Kante opportunities for occasional runs behind opposition fullbacks. Apart from Jorginho (on pens) and Mason Mount (sometimes on the wing), our midfield has not been posting the numbers. The return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and hopefully a possible addition would take a lot of pressure off Kante’s shoulders. There are many of the opinion that Kante should play as an anchor man. For a player whose strengths are his work rate and high energy, sitting in front of the defense for long periods is not the best use of his strengths.
With the whole world put on hold due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, it makes sense that there are several transfer rumours in world football. Kante has drawn the interest of Real Madrid, PSG, Juventus among other big teams, and rightly so. Nonetheless, he still has three years left on his contract. Frank Lampard has not had a proper transfer window yet and he needs all the world-class players he can get. Keeping Kante at Chelsea should be high on his list.
The murmurs against Kante and the debate about his position have always been around the corner for the past two seasons. Some like to point out that his defensive stats have taken a hit. I believe that is flawed analysis as it stands to reason that a team with higher possession affords lesser opportunities of interceptions, recoveries or tackles. Another argument against Kante has been his inefficacy in a three-man midfield. While it is true that he performs better in a double pivot, we need a player of his ability while playing against bigger teams. He can be benched against teams that play a lower block in order to opt for a more attacking midfield. There are no right answers to the debate unless we delve into the mind of Frank Lampard. If Frank chooses to continue with a deep lying playmaker at DM, we should look to keep Kante for his pressing and tackling. If he chooses to play an anchorman at DM, we would then lose attacking impetus by playing him. We should instead look to cash in on Kante and bring in an attack minded midfielder. Whatever be the case, we are lucky to have him play for Chelsea.
Edited by: Dan