Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Back-to-back Premier League titles, FA Cup and World Cup winners' medals and short-listed for the Ballon d'Or. It’s been quite an eventful three seasons for Chelsea’s French midfielder.
After battling his way up from the lowest reaches of French football, there’s now few who would dare dispute that N’Golo Kante excels as a holding midfielder. But after shielding the defence for both Antonio Conte and Claudio Ranieri, Maurizio Sarri’s first action as Chelsea manager was to buy a player who will replace Kante in this position.
Deployed as a number eight against Huddersfield last weekend — afforded additional freedom to make runs into the box from Jorginho's discipline — Kante terrorised the Terriers, scoring his fourth goal from 107 Premier League appearances in the process.
While there was a touch of fortune regarding the finish, Kante’s overall performance was exemplary as a number eight. Could this positional change, therefore, prove to be a master-stroke which helps define Sarri’s time in London?
From roaming to marauding
Kante has become synonymous for workmanlike efficiency, for tackling, for interceptions and being the blue shield which has proved near impenetrable for Leicester, Chelsea and France’s opponents.
Averaging 11.6km per game last season, Kante’s roaming in front of the defence saw him record the fourth-highest coverage in the Premier League. With the third most tackles (113) and the highest number of interceptions (85), it wasn’t just mindless running that came from the diminutive dynamo.
While his heat map proves he has a greater range than a crab, an average passing length of 16m also dispels the image of a player who simply recycles the ball with an obedient sideways glance.
The question is, does Kante have enough in his locker to take on a role previously held by Frank Lampard? Essentially a goal-scoring box-to-box midfielder.
Adding end product
There’s little doubt Kante has the required engine to play as a box-to-box midfielder. Having never managed to score more than a single league goal in an English season, he’s far from the prolific marksman, however.
Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine His single goal last season was backed by a 40% shooting accuracy, although this was from only 10 shots taken during his 34 appearances, with another 14 shots being blocked by opponents.
One assist was accompanied by a further 36 key passes — the most the Frenchman has made in a single season — suggesting that he does have an eye for forward passing. These are both attributes which will need to be fleshed out in a more advanced position in the team though.
Even is his vision doesn't improve, it doesn't prevent him from adding goals to his game, goals that derive from late runs into the box and intelligent movement, two attributes that Kante displayed against Huddersfield.
With Jorginho almost guaranteed to play every game in Chelsea’s three-man midfield, Kante is one of five players vying to fill the two remaining positions.
Tiemoue Bakayoko’s move to AC Milan means Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovacic and Cesc Fabregas are the main contenders to start in the central area.
Where Kante has a distinct advantage over his colleagues is in his pressing out of possession. Sarri’s philosophy requires his players to close down space high up the pitch, so Kante playing as his number eight bears a lot of similarities to the midfielder’s previous role for the team.
In possession, his movement will also play a critical factor in Chelsea’s attacks. Lampard was renowned for his late runs into the box and while it’s tempting to joke Kante won’t be late, his mobility will ask serious questions of his marker(s).
Either he opens space for a teammate or he finds himself with space to operate high up the pitch.
Are we sure?
Kante may have become lauded as his team’s water-carrier in the defensive midfield position. but he is far from the stereotypical number six. What he lacks in stature and physicality, he makes up for in intelligence. He defines the term 'clinical tackler,' and closed down space before his opponent even thought to attack it.
The comparisons to Lampard may start to flow in the coming weeks, though the Derby County manager played in a team who operated under an entirely different system.
It’s also worth noting that Bastian Schweinsteiger was widely regarded as one of the great number eights despite being a predominantly defensive-minded player.
Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Whilst it may seem beneficial to play a natural ball carrier in this role, such as Barkley or Loftus-Cheek, it's worth noting that Kante's defensive stats often overshadow his ball progression. His dribbling has been improving year-on-year, and the Frenchman was successfully dribbled past an opponent 81.82% of his attempts.
Coupled with his improved passing passing and energy in pressing, Kante is the glue that holds Chelsea together.
Surrounded by the likes of Jorginho, Willian and Cesar Azpilicueta, Kante will have plenty of outlets to offload the ball to and progress Chelsea’s attack. He may also break his long-held record of scoring a single goal each season.