N’Golo Kanté, the 29-year old French midfielder has always sparked a debate and caused a divided opinion with regard to what his actual position is on a football field. Some believe that he has always been a defensive midfielder, while managers and people who have actually tracked him tend to differ. He has played as a second midfielder in a double pivot at Leicester and Chelsea, and has always been accompanied by a sitting midfielder, with Kanté being the midfield runner, using his tireless athleticism to run back and forth. The debate sparked up when Maurizio Sarri began using him as a box-to-box midfielder at RCM, putting Jorginho at the base instead. Lampard used him the same way, and said that he had more to his game than just sitting back and defending. This season he has been marred with injuries and stayed out of the team, and some Chelsea fans have begun speculating whether he is really required for the team, and wondering whether he should be sold, and swapped for a younger player who can play as a defensive midfielder instead.
I personally believe that Kanté’s game has a lot more to it then what people make it out to be. He isn’t simply someone who can run around making tackles and interceptions, and although that may be his best trait, for me he is a good passer of the ball, can run with the ball, dribble, and gets the occasional goal as well, which is why I saw what these coaches wanted to do when they played him as a box to box midfielder. However, we have a dearth of talent in midfield, and if Kanté really wants to play every week, he might need to transition his game into a Makélélé-type defensive midfielder and play in the position that Jorginho currently occupies. If he manages to do that, then he would be able to cover for the defense better than Jorginho, who’s biggest drawback is his lack of athleticism, pace and defensive abilities. The big question, however, is whether he could play that restricted role efficiently and to good effect? To this end, Lampard seems to have taken all of this into consideration, and decided to give him a run out in this position to see what he can do. It was reported that he played in that role in a friendly against Queens Park Rangers where we ended up winning 7-1. Lampard must have seen something in that game, because he decided to use him in the same position again in our game against Aston Villa on Sunday.
Strong Showing Against Villa
At Villa Park, Kanté played the holding midfield role in our 2-1 win, with Matteo Kovačić and Mason Mount starting either side of him. As someone who felt that he might not do well enough in that role, he did a surprisingly good job. Held his position well, provided cover and was really good with his passing as well, both short and long, and while the transition from defense to attack didn’t look as seamless as it does when Jorginho or Billy Gilmour occupy that position, he definitely did a functional job there, dropping a solid 7/10 performance once again. He held his own, and was good with his passing and distribution, with an 87% passing accuracy, even surprising us with some very good long balls (9) in progression. He also kept Grealish in check and committed a number of tactical fouls, and wasn’t dribbled past even once.
This brings us to the question of whether he can be the answer to our question, and can play as our defensive midfielder, providing security for the defense while doing a functional job at playing out from the back. He did do it against Villa, but that was against a side that sat back, and played on the counter, not even attempting to press, and leaving spaces the equivalent of the whole of Birmingham between him and their players, giving him room to play his passes. Doing a good job in such a scenario, and playing out from the back, creating spaces to and anchoring the defense and the midfield together, while making split-second decisions about where you want the ball to be played. And when you’re being pressed hard in that position, it is an entirely different ballgame.
Can He Continue To Operate In A Similar Role?
It remains to be seen whether he can actually do all these things when he isn’t accorded the space and time that he was given by Villa on Sunday. Of course, nobody expects him to become an expert in a new position in one day, but the question is, does he have the ability to do it? For me, Kanté is one of the best midfielders in the world, and he is someone that can do the unexpected. I believe, with a little shift in his philosophy and restructure of his overall game, he can make that position his own and solve our problems. At the current moment, maybe he cannot play against the bigger sides like Liverpool or Manchester City as a lone DM, but the positive is that he can definitely do it against the low block sides as he showed us on Sunday, which would allow us to use two attacking box-to-box No. 8s’ alongside him, which would give us an edge against such teams by providing more dynamism in attack so we can break teams down and have more players on the pitch who can create and score, with players like Loftus-Cheek or Mount or Gilmour alongside him. If he evolves his game in such a way that he can play there for a large number of games in a season, then we may not need to buy a proper DM anymore and can use Kanté as an option there, with Gilmour or Jorginho ready to be deployed as DLPs’ when necessary, while Kanté transitions into this new role.
N’Golo is now entering that stage of his career where he may lose his ability to run back and forth as much as he does in the box to box role, gradually, and needs to evolve into someone who can hold back and provide that extra defensive cover. If he is somehow able to master that role, then we may not need to change our identity much, and the need to buy a strong DM may become the least of our priorities, and would help us utilize his strongest attributes (which are defensive attributes, even if he doesn’t play in a defensive midfield role) in the most effective manner, and avoid all the shuffling in terms of personnel.
Whether he can succeed and solve this problem for us, is something only time will be able to tell, but I believe that he can grow into this role and prolong his stay at Chelsea even further.