N’golo Kante is world-class because of his uniquely aggressive defensive style, and he has to be used in the right way to harness his full talent.
N’golo Kante is a world class midfielder. He was named in the official FIFA World XI in 2018 alongside Eden Hazard, has been included in the PFA Team of the Year twice, and was a part of the UEFA Team of the Year in 2018. He picked up a raft of player of the year awards in 2017, and has won the greatest prize of all: the World Cup.
In terms of trophies and individual honours, there are few players more decorated that Kante in world football, and he is second to none in this regard among the Chelsea squad.
Injuries and fitness permitting, which was unfortunately not the case for the Frenchman last year, he is undoubtedly the first name on the team sheet, if not just for club then for country too.
But he poses a tactical challenge to Frank Lampard, as he did for Maurizio Sarri and many other managers before. Kante’s brilliance lies in his unique style: a defensive midfielder who presses high and likes to go hunting for the ball. His game is not attacking, but it is aggressive. He is not the kind of player who fits neatly into a system as either a defensive or attacking midfielder. In order to be the world-class talent that he is, he cannot be played without both positional and technical support in a midfield.
When Chelsea lost 3-2 against West Ham after the restart of the Premier League last season, this reality was laid out in cruel clarity.
Above are the average positions of each of the players in that game, with Chelsea in the darker colour. There are three important things to notice here which all have a big part in explaining why Kante cannot be a long-term lone defensive midfielder for Chelsea. The first is the full-backs. Alonso and Azpilicueta (which will this season become the arguably more attacking James and Chilwell) are pushed high, as Chelsea do against almost all teams they face in the Premier League. Their positioning increases the need for a positionally-disciplined defensive midfielder. The second point is about the width of the centre-backs. Against most opposition, Chelsea push the centre-backs wide to create passing options for the goalkeeper and to improve attacking build-up. The third is Kante’s average position, which is very high – past the halfway line, in fact. He is offering no protection to the centre-backs. In this kind of system, a player like West Ham’s Declan Rice – playing for the opposition in this game – is necessary, to screen the area in front of the centre backs and make sure they can’t be caught out.
You might wonder why Chelsea were able to win with the same system and personnel against Man City, and the answer is all about space. Against lesser opposition, it’s all too tempting for the defensive midfielder to push into the open space ahead and forget their defensive role, particularly for a player like Kante who plays his best football when he goes hunting for the ball. But against better teams, when the team sits back in a defensive shape, there simply isn’t the space to go into, and so Kante couldn’t leave his position. What’s more, there were players around him in defensive areas, including Barkley, Mount, Azpilicueta, and Alonso, to help with the defensive duties if Kante did vacate the space. What Chelsea desperately need is a player who will let the attacking players attack.
If you needed any more proof that Kante is not that player, consider the systems in which he has been successful before. At Leicester, he played in a defensively-minded 4-4-2 system, with Simpson, Drinkwater, and Fuchs always nearby to cover his position if he went hunting for the ball. And under Conte at Chelsea, he played in front of 3 defenders, rather than just two, with Matic or Bakayoko alongside him to cover. Under Sarri and Lampard he has struggled, with no obvious holding midfielder to play with. He has looked at his best in the past year in a 4-man midfield in front of a back three, just as he did under Conte.
Sarri, for all his faults, was actually correct to play Kante on the right of a three-man midfield. What he got wrong was playing Jorginho in the hole between midfield and defence, when it is painfully obvious that he is not a holding midfielder. That was apparent in the ill-fated early-season fixture against champions Liverpool, when Christensen hauled Sadio Mane to the floor and was sent off. In this scenario, Christensen and Zouma had split wide and pushed high, James and Alonso had pushed on, and Jorginho didn’t have the awareness nor the athleticism to drop between the defenders to block the ball through.
Jorginho’s future is very unclear indeed: it is not obvious that he even has any kind of tactical role in this Chelsea squad, barring a shift to a 3-4-3 system. And while Kante can continue to be used to good effect as the deepest-lying midfielder in a passive 4-3-3 against superior teams, his best position is most certainly alongside a holding midfielder in a double pivot or on the right of a 4-3-3. Positionally, he is actually similar to Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, of which the latter will likely spend the upcoming season on loan.
Christensen is a possible in-house solution for the holding role. He has not impressed at centre-back, with his poor mobility limiting him. But, as a good passer of the ball and with a natural defensive instinct, he could play well in this position. Rice is the obvious transfer solution, although with an £80 million price tag, Jorginho and Rudiger may well have to be offloaded first. Billy Gilmour and Ethan Ampadu are longer-term solutions for this position, if Christensen proves unsuitable and Rice unattainable.
Reece James could play in a double pivot if needed, but he would likely be better used as the more advanced of the two, with a defensively-minded player alongside him.
The more technical, attacking cog in Chelsea’s midfield would then come from one – or two – or Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Ross Barkley, and Tino Anjorin. Chelsea wouldn’t be fantastically well-suited to Man City’s “two 8s” system, where a holding midfielder plays with two attacking midfielders ahead, because this requires both full-backs to tuck into the midfield when the team has the ball. Reece James could do this, but it is certainly not Ben Chilwell’s game: he prefers to hug the touchline and get up and down the pitch.
Here is how Chelsea’s midfield could look, with squad depth players included.
N’golo Kante has to be either accommodated or sold. He is simply too good to be left out, or to play a bit-part role. But Chelsea have some restructuring to do, potentially bringing a holding midfielder in and selling players like Jorginho, Drinkwater, and Bakayoko, who are all some combination of sub-par and tactically redundant.
For Frank Lampard as for all of his managers before, he is the awkward first name on the team sheet.