It’s a scary -or exciting- prospect, depending from which perspective you’re examining it.
N’Golo Kante, the diminutive and previously little known midfielder from humble origins in Paris, is now arguably one of the world’s best defensive midfielders. A testament to his outstanding ability is the PFA Players’ Player of the Season award in 2017, rarely gifted to a defensive midfielder, the back-to-back PFA Team of the Year appearances and a Ballon d’Or nomination.
Failing to rise to the French top-flight until 2014, Kante became the first player to win consecutive Premier League crowns with different clubs since Eric Cantona in 1993.
In each, he was key to the title-winners, but perhaps what’s most impressive is that he performed an altered role in each. Tactically intelligent footballers can adapt and change their roles, but the tallest of orders is irreversibly transforming your style.
From selfless ball-winner to short-tempo passer to midfield dictator, this is the evolution of N’Golo Kante.
What? Kante is evolving!
What’s fascinating about Kante’s meteoric rise to stardom is that he was rarely given a chance in the doldrums of the French football pyramid precisely due to the attributes that make him so adored today: his size and selflessness.
In his debut season in English football with 2015/16 champions Leicester City, it was Kante’s willingness to cede possession to more creative teammates and hunt the ball down in any part of the pitch that endeared him to Foxes fans and others alike.
He announced himself as a monstrous ball-winner, dominating the defensive charts with the most interceptions (156) and tackles (125).
His work rate, selflessness, ability to marshal an entire third of the pitch by himself and centrality to the title victory earned him a move to Chelsea.
This is where stage one of his evolution occurred.
Kante arrived at Chelsea with Antonio Conte, who rapidly adopted a 3-4-3 formation in their title-winning campaign of 2016/17. It saw Kante’s role change, but what’s impressive is that the Frenchman took it upon himself to adapt his style of play altogether.
|Pass completion (%)||82%||89%||89%|
|Successful take-ons (%)||58.02%||73.47%||81.82%|
For example, Kante’s passing accuracy has improved year-on-year, as has his ability to dribble past opponents -he completed more of his attempted take-ons in 2017/18 than ever before-, whilst he’s completing more successful passes than his Leicester days.
From a simple ball-winner, Kante became a ball-winner capable of dribbling and precise, short tempo passing.
Congratulations! Your ball-winner evolved into a dictator
Every Pokemon needs an elite trainer, and this is where Maurizio Sarri comes into the equation. In truth, the developmental process has already begun, with Conte laying the foundations that Sarri, if appointed, could build upon.
For instance, Kante has become increasingly able to create chances, despite his origins as a pure ball-winner -creating 30 chances in 2015/16, rising to 37 in 2017/18-, and prove decisive in key moments.
Sarri’s philosophy is drastically different to Conte’s, with the former Napoli manager opting for an expansive, high-press in a 4-3-3 formation.
For Kante to sit at the base of this midfield, similar to how Fernandinho does for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, another evolution is necessary.
His role is already adaptable, with the skills to win the ball and lay it off to a more creative interior midfielder and the Frenchman already boasts impressive ball recovery and retention skills.
Stage two of his evolution, though, is being able to develop a degree of control on the tempo of the game, similar to how Jorginho did for Sarri’s Napoli, who missed out on last season’s Serie A despite finishing with 91 points.
Stage one Kante arrived in at Leicester from Caen, Conte aided his transformation into a stage two ball-winner with passing and dribbling skills, but Sarri is the key for Kante to complete his evolution into a stage three ball-winning midfield dictator.
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