Back in February I wrote a piece for All Things Chelsea about the imbalance in Chelsea’s midfield group, attempting to make the point that, while collectively talented, Chelsea’s midfielders did not fit well together. While the piece was on the group as a whole, the intentionally unintentional focus was on two players, Jorginho and N’Golo Kante. While both were then, and are now, quality players, what stood out was the fact that the tactical set-up that each player was best in, or most effective in, was diametrically opposed to that of the other, and even opposed to the majority of the rest of the group. Of course that was a time where Jorginho was still in favor and the “J5 hive” was still going strong, and fans thought N’Golo Kante should be picked to play on one leg if it meant he played at all, so many fans thought it pure blaspheme to even think of dropping either player.
Seven months later, times have changed a bit. Jorginho fell out of favor after the restart and looks to be heading for the first available exit door. N’Golo Kante meanwhile, somewhat ironically, moved into the position that Jorginho have previously occupied at the base of the midfield three after the restart. Many fans will look back now and think, “Ok, Jorginho is out, Kante is in his best position, so that fixes the balance problem”.
Well, not exactly.
With Inter Milan sniffing around Kante this past week or so, and the majority of the fan base screaming at the top of their lungs that selling N’golo Kanté is not an option; I figured it was a good time to take a deep dive into the N’Golo Kanté conundrum and answer the question of why, while I would not be pushing him out the door, it is at least time to think about the club accepting a reasonable offer for the always smiling World Cup winner.
It does have to be said here that publically at least, Frank Lampard is firmly in the “Kanté stays” camp, as he should be. I do not think there is a single person at Chelsea Football Club who is actively looking to push N’Golo Kanté out the door, after all he may be the single most loveable character in the history of football, never mind of just our club. But, there have been small leaks, from reputable sources, that IF a reasonable offer were made, Chelsea would listen and consider it. Now, is that a Frank decision? A Marina decision? We do not know, but I do believe the sources that the rumors are coming out from. It would take quite a few dominoes lining up for anything to happen, but it is likely safe now to say Kanté is no longer considered “untouchable”.
What’s In a Position?
I think the first step in understanding the Kante conundrum is really understanding the man himself, N’Golo Kanté. World Champion, 2x Premier League Champion, Europa League and FA Cup winner and 2017 French Footballer of the Year, N’Golo Kanté has made himself into a World Class footballer. The lynchpin of Leicester’s historic and improbable Championship of 15/16, Kanté secured a move to Chelsea where he partnered Nemanja Matic at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield during their 16/17 Championship season. Despite his diminutive size, Kanté has made his name off of his incredible ability to recover possession and endless stamina to cover nearly every corner of the pitch for the full 90 minutes.
After breaking through into the mainstream with the title winning Leicester side, and starring again in Chelsea’s title winning side, Kanté’s work-rate and ball winning attributes, perhaps a bit lazily, saw him dubbed as “the best defensive midfielder in the world”. While that statement may not have been entirely untrue, there was much more to Kente’s game, and the way Kanté played, that labelling him a “defensive midfielder” almost pushed to the side.
It wasn’t until Maurizio Sarri’s arrival at Chelsea for the 2018/19 season, and his decision to play Kante further forward, as more of a #8 in Sarri’s traditional 4-3-3 that people began to reassess Kanté’s “position”. The narrative in the English punditry almost automatically became that Kante was being “played out of position” by Sarri in favor of Jorginho, and this narrative was used and wildly overused for the entire length of the season. In fact, even at the beginning of last season, when Frank Lampard deployed Kante and Jorginho in similar roles to what Sarri had done, the same narrative reappeared once more. Unfortunately, this repeated narrative only further distorted the presumption of the player that N’Golo Kanté actually is, and how to get the best out of him on the pitch.
The biggest failure of the English punditry was not the statement that Kanté was being played out of position, it was the assumption of Kanté’s position itself. It is a mistake fans make quite often as well, players get assigned a position tag, just as they would in a video game, for Kanté, it was a Defensive Midfielder, “CDM”. The assumption is then made that the role of a CDM is the same, regardless of the formation, when the reality is that assumption is grossly inaccurate. Every system has its own positional roles and responsibilities, which will then be altered or added to by the specific manager or based on the specific game plan. So there were two errors made, first the assumption that Kanté was a “CDM” based on what he had done in the pivot roles with Drinkwater and Matic primarily (more on that in a minute), and secondly, that the “CDM” role that Kante would have been playing in those midfields (4-4-2 with Leicester and 3-4-3 with Chelsea) was the same “CDM” role in Sarri and Lampard’s 4-3-3.
So what is Kanté’s position if it is not CDM? Well, in some sense, it is, but in other’s it isn’t. As I mentioned before, Kanté’s best form and most successful times in England came in formation that played him in a midfield pivot, or a midfield partnership. At Leicester, his partner was primarily Danny Drinkwater in Ranieri’s 4-4-2, in his first season at Chelsea, it was primarily Kante and Nemanja Matic once Conte made the switch to the 3-4-3. Even at international level for France, it has primarily been Kanté partnered with Paul Pogba. For the purpose of this argument, I want to focus more on the club then the internationals since Chelsea do not have Paul Pogba, or Varane, Laporte, Umtiti, Lenglet, etc… sitting behind as the centre backs.
What made the partnerships with Drinkwater and Matic so successful was the fact that both Drinkwater and Matic were sitting midfielders, dropping back, covering the middle of the field in front of the back four, showing as options to receive the ball off of the back four when they were under pressure, and handling the link-up play to get the team forward. Why is this important? Because it allows N’Golo Kanté the freedom to roam and chase the ball all around the field while his partner remains disciplined in covering the vacant space. N’Golo Kanté’s best attribute is his ball recovery, he is an incredible ball winner, but how he does it is what makes him unique. To steal a reference most used in American football, Kanté is a “ball hawk”, that is someone who goes and finds the ball, instead of sitting and waiting for the ball to find him. At that job it would be hard to find any better, only Allan, now of Everton, can really give him any sort of competition. But, it is this “ball hawking” that, while Kanté’s best and most valuable asset, may be a slight headache for his manager.
Frank’s Blue Vision
The second part of the equation for me is Frank Lampard. Not Frank specifically, but the direction that he is guiding the club in. Football has changed, historically significant managers like Jose Mourinho whose defense first tactics won him a truly indecent amount of silverware, are now a thing of the past, being left in the dust by the more progressive, attack minded tacticians who continue to push the envelope of effective and efficient attacking football. While Frank Lampard may not be a direct descendent of the Bielsa, Guardiola school of football, he showed last year that he certainly does want his team to be prolific and ruthless going forward, even if that at times left the back door cracked a little wider then most would like.
This is the direction that football is heading, attack first, defend if you can. For managers, that means getting as many attacking players into your XI as possible, either by formation changes to accommodate your best attackers, personnel changes like Adama Traore at wing back for Wolves or Saka at wing back for Arsenal, or tactical changes, such as Liverpool’s full backs or Sheffield United’s overlapping center backs.
For Frank Lampard, as has been circulated, and as he showed post restart, the long term plan for his Chelsea team appears to be a 4-3-3, with a #6 and 2 #8’s in the midfield. This was most evident when he deployed a midfield with Mason Mount and Ross Barkley as #8’s ahead of N’Golo Kanté in the #6 against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge, and won the game 2-1. In fact, Lampard used most of the opportunities he had with N’Golo Kanté in the restart period trying him in the #6 role with the 2 #8’s ahead of him to see how it worked. While it may still be a little time before Frank gets to his perfect 4-3-3 rolling out every weekend, if N’Golo Kanté is going to be part of that, it will likely have to be as that #6, which Kanté did show he could do, but…
…it wasn’t perfect. Remember back to talking about the positional responsibilities depending on formation? Well, for a #6 in a 4-3-3, the simplest way that I could sum up the role without going into too much extra detail is: shield the back 4, cover any fullback caught up field by keeping the attack down their side out of the middle until they recover or more help arrives, always be an outlet for your defenders in possession, look to get the ball forward when possible, but be willing to drop and recycle possession if needed (basically be the fulcrum of the attacking shape). Essentially, the #6 is responsible for anywhere between 75-100% of the width of the field (depending on how advanced the fullbacks are) in the space between the back 4, and the 2 midfielders ahead of him.
With that much space to cover and that much responsibility, defensively, a #6 has to be intelligent and disciplined to know when to, when to contain, when to wait for help, and when to foul, because there is no partner there behind them, if they get beat from outside to inside, the attacker gets a straight run at the centre backs. Offensively, a #6 has to be composed in possession, always willing to receive possession, even facing their own goal, and must be able to recognize when to drop in and give the center back another passing option.
While Kanté was certainly not a slouch at the #6 position, there were some flaws that were exposed. First, in possession, being used to having a more sitting partner, Kanté does not have the instincts of when to drop and receive possession out from the back, nor how to start the attack and launch the team forward. If you watch the games Kanté played as a #6 closely, you will see that there is another midfielder, often Mason Mount, who is dropping back deeper, sometimes to the same line as Kanté, sometimes slightly behind, to receive the ball and turn to play forward. The second issue is defensively. Kanté’s natural “ball hawking” instincts are completely contradictory to the disciplined role of a #6 in a 4-3-3. There were times where Kanté would leave his position exposed, but get away with it because he won the ball, but were he to go and not win the ball, he would have left a major area of the pitch completely exposed.
Now are either of these things fatal flaws in playing Kanté as a #6? No, but having one of your #8’s come back to receive the ball and initiate the attack, slows down your attack, and having your #6 go chasing a ball around the field and not get it leaves the middle of the field dreadfully exposed and your center backs, which are not an area of great strength for Chelsea as it is, under even more pressure.
Can It Work?
Of course it CAN work. Of course Kanté can remain a fixture in this Chelsea team for years to come.
I just don’t think he will.
When you consider the fact that Chelsea just spent north of £70 million on Kai Havertz, still have Mason Mount and Ruben Loftus Cheek coming through, with Tino Anjorin not too far behind them, as well as Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Hakim Ziyech out wide, sacrificing an attacking spot to insert another midfielder next to N’Golo Kanté to allow him to “ball hawk” in the midfield, just does not seem reasonable in the long term. It becomes even less reasonable when you realize that the primary options Frank Lampard has to do that right now are Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic, neither of whom are the type of midfielders that fit the sitting profile.
What about Declan Rice?
Declan Rice would work, probably very well as Kante’s pivot partner actually, but you are then pigeonholing Ruben and Mason into backing up Kai in the #10 role in a 4-2-3-1, which is neither of their strong suits (especially after Ruben’s display against Brighton). The main takeaway is, the domino effect of getting Kante in an effective double pivot midfield, changes the dynamic of the entire team and the entire attacking unit, when you could instead have Rice, or a Denis Zakaria sitting as the #6 with Kai and Mason or Kai and Ruben attacking in front. So ask yourself, is that a trade you would make?
Also consider this, at 29, coming off of a massively injury riddled season, having played almost every minute he was breathing for since he arrived in England before then, Kanté’s break down potential is increasing exponentially. Now there is every chance Kanté may be fit enough to play 50 matches this season, but what if his 20/21 looks a lot like his 19/20? What is Kanté then? Chelsea may be looking at one of the few remaining windows with an opportunity to get a significant return on a Kanté sale, and that has to be taken into consideration.
I feel like this needs to be restated one more time, I, nor I think anyone else, is advocating for N’Golo Kanté to be pushed out the door of Chelsea Football Club. By all accounts, he is perhaps the nicest human being in the history of ever, and he has been a great player for this club, and should he stay, he likely will continue to be. Frankly, as long as Kanté remains in Blue, and likely long afterwards, he will be a fan favorite. But with Rice to Chelsea seeming like a formality, and the likes of Zakaria, Soumare, and Kamara either currently on, or coming on the market next summer, there may not be a better time to acquire the #6 that will anchor Frank Lampard’s midfield for years to come.
As sad as it was to see Eden Hazard leave Chelsea Football Club, the funds raised from his departure set up a rejuvenation that could propel Chelsea back to the top of European football for the next decade. Chelsea may soon be faced with a similar decision to make on N’Golo Kanté, and it would be disappointing to see fan sentiment hinder practicality and smart business decisions, no matter how much it hurts.