N’golo Kante: The Enigma

LILLE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 02: N'Golo Kante of Chelsea applauds fans after winning the during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Lille OSC and Chelsea FC at Stade Pierre Mauroy on October 02, 2019 in Lille, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
LILLE, FRANCE – OCTOBER 02: N’Golo Kante of Chelsea applauds fans after winning the during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Lille OSC and Chelsea FC at Stade Pierre Mauroy on October 02, 2019 in Lille, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

N’golo Kante, with his infectious smile and down-to-earth demeanor, is one of the most loved footballers in world football. Whether it be his shy persona, exemplified during France’s World Cup celebrations; or his down to earth nature, evidenced by the fact he still drives his very first car, Kante is universally loved by fans across the globe. But why have some Chelsea fans fallen out of love with the world-class midfielder? 

Early days

Kante arrived at Chelsea in 2016, fresh off a superb Euro that saw France reach the final of the competition, ultimately to lose to Portugal in extra-time. This was the first time Kante had performed on Europe’s biggest stage, and he passed with flying colours. Kante seemingly had the world at his feet, following a memorable campaign in which Kante contributed to the unlikeliest title success in recent history. 

The Antonio Conte era started unflatteringly, with Kante deployed as Chelsea’s sole holding midfielder, otherwise referred to as a 6. Although Kante’s endeavors in this role were solid, Antonio Conte reverted to a double pivot midfield following a heavy 3-0 defeat at Arsenal. And, the rest, as we all know, was history. Chelsea embarked on a 13-game winning run which ultimately propelled them to a title. 

Kante typified Antontio Conte’s 3-4-3 system, which relied heavily upon a solid foundation and quick counter attacks, to which Kante significantly contributed. Kante’s tidy possession play and excellent ball-winning ability enabled the system to thrive. The system was similar to that which Kante played with Leicester, sitting deep and ‘suffering’ to draw the opposition out, thereby enabling quick counter attacks. Kante thrived in this system and was voted Player of the Year, beating Hazard to the trophy.  

The system did not require Kante to contribute to offensively, even though he did pop up with the odd goal every now and then. Kante’s role largely consisted of protecting the back 3 with lateral movements across the pitch and providing solidarity in midfield. Kante’s ability to gracefully move around the pitch enabled Chelsea to push their wingbacks – Moses and Alonso – high up the pitch and allowed Conte to deploy a two-man midfield without running the risk of being overrun. It is evident that Conte drew inspiration from Ranieri’s title-winning side, and most importantly, on how to extract the most out of Kante. 

Whereas Conte’s Chelsea largely played on the counter, Sarri’s philosophy would see Chelsea formulate a new system. Sarri was appointed manager of Chelsea following an impressive stint in Napoli which saw the Italian club play highly entertaining and attacking football. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04: N'Golo Kante of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge on December 04, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Visionhaus)
LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 04: N’Golo Kante of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge on December 04, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Visionhaus)

The role reversal

Seemingly, Sarri was keen to transfer the system which worked wonders at Napoli to Chelsea., prioritizing deep ball progression and a compact shape to enable quick combinations. Sarri predominantly deployed a 4-3-3, and given that Sarri preferred a more technical midfielder in the 6 role, Kante was forced out to the right of a midfield 3, in the hope that Kante would replicate Allan’s exploits in this position. 

What ensued was largely predictable. Sarri’s decisive decision was heavily criticised in the media and Kante’s influence seemed nullified due to the unfamiliar nature of the role. Although the English media could not comprehend the decision, Kante actually started as a box-to-box midfielder at Caen before being converted to a more defensive midfielder during his time at Leicester. This was little known to the media, though, and Sarri continuously faced criticism for the tactical shift. 

Kante did not necessarily struggle in the role, but it was evident that the lovable Frenchman was ill-suited taking up offensive positions that the system required. Kante’s offensive output improved, slightly, but the improvement was not enough to compromise for the decrease in defensive contributions. In Conte’s system Kante was the star man, but in Sarri’s system, Kante was just another midfielder. 

Since then, Frank Lampard replaced beleaguered boss Sarri and has largely maintained Kante’s position on the right of the midfield three. Lampard – like Sarri – has preferred a more technically gifted midfielder in the holding midfield position, with Jorginho and recently, Gilmour deployed in that role. Again, in an attempt to fit into the 4-3-3 system, Kante has been shoved to the right of the midfield three. 

Intriguingly, Kante has proved to be a decent option on the right of a midfield three in games against stronger opposition. One of Kante’s best ever performances in a Chelsea shirt came against Liverpool in the Super Cup, where Kante demonstrated all round abilities; defending resolutely, beating players and stabilizing Chelsea’s midfield. 

It is easy to see why Kante thrives in the system against top opposition. In games against higher-quality opposition, Chelsea do not necessarily dominate the ball and are not as reliant on Kante’s offensive ability and vertical movements. Rather, Kante’s role is much more restricted, requiring him to maintain his position discipline and break-up play, something in which Kante excels.

Where Kante has really struggled is in games against deep defensive blocks. Lampard’s 4-3-3 system requires the two 8’s to adopt offensive positions, usually in the half-spaces between the opposition’s midfield and defence and relies on the technical quality of these midfielders to create chances and penetrate the defensive lines. An example of this is Chelsea’s recent win at home to Everton, where Mount and Barkley were tasked with receiving the ball between the lines and creating opportunities from these dangerous positions. 

Simply put, Kante struggles, as it simply does not play to his strengths. By adopting positions further up the pitch, Kante cannot provide ample protection for the back four, nor can he act as the creative midfielder the position requires. Games against Newcastle, Bournemouth and Arsenal (at Stamford Bridge) have all illustrated Kante’s ineffectiveness in the role against deep defensive blocks. 

As a result of the sub-par performances, some Chelsea fans have called for Kante to be sold in the summer, given it could be the last opportunity for Chelsea to cash in on a huge move. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20: N'Golo Kante of Chelsea and Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur battle for possession during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on August 20, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 20: N’Golo Kante of Chelsea and Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur battle for possession during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on August 20, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

The way forward

So, in light of all this, how can these Chelsea fans fall back in love with one of the most lovable players on the planet? To restore Kante’s influence, Frank must reinvent his role in this Chelsea team. I believe Kante can thrive in the Makelele role, which will enable Kante to rediscover his best form and restore the love of the Kante doubters. 

Claude Makelele is one of the most revered footballers of this generation; as they say, he is so good they named a role after him. Makelele, like Kante, rose through the ranks at Nantes as a speedy midfielder capable of playing on the centre or the right of midfield. It wasn’t until joining Madrid where Makelele became renowned for his defensive quality. 

Much like Kante’s current predicament, Makelele’s career began to stagnate before being deployed at the base of a midfield 3 at Real Madrid. Makelele excelled in this position due to a supreme level of tactical intelligence, an inane sense of positional discipline and incredible ball-winning ability.

Kante’s qualities very much resemble those of which Makelele possessed. Both midfielders are diminutive in stature, and both reside from France, a country which is renowned for their ability to produce excellent holding midfielders. Additionally, Kante’s ability to win possession in midfield is unrivalled; much like Makelele, and Kante’s tactical intelligence allows him to fluctuate between multiple positions across the midfield in a number of different systems. Most importantly, Kante reads the game magnificently, culminating in his superb interception and recovery stats. Kante, on paper, has all the qualities to play the Makelele role. 

Kante and Makelele also share the unwanted attribute of being underrated on the ball. During his time at Madrid and Chelsea, Makelele’s ability on the ball was criminally underrated. In comparison, Kante’s technical ability is underappreciated because of the poor performances in the 8 position. 

Given the nature of the 8 role, Kante often finds himself in tight positions, receiving the ball with his back to goal. This requires tricky football and incredible ball control to exit with possession. Unfortunately, Kante does not have this in his locker. This is to say that Kante does not possess technical quality, however. Kante, as he demonstrated during his time with Leicester, Chelsea and France, is a tidy midfielder who is capable of executing short and long passes. Kante also has the capacity to drive through the midfield when given enough space, something that can be particularly useful in the 6 position. 

Particularly in games against weaker opposition, Kante will have much more time on the ball. As such, Kante, who has often been restricted to tight spaces, will have much more time to get his head up and execute the passes for which the holding midfield role requires. 

Question marks remain on whether Kante possesses the required positional discipline to play the position. Over the years, Kante relied on his ability to get around the pitch to execute successful tackles and interceptions. In one sense, the 6 role will limit Kante’s ability to utilise his excellent engine and pace. However, If Kante is to develop strong positional discipline, Chelsea may have finally found the heir to Makelele’s throne. 

As many players have done in the past, N’Golo Kante can revitalize his career with a small tactical tweak that will benefit both him and Chelsea in the long haul. Restricting Kante’s movement will enable the Frenchmane to focus on lateral movements across the pitch and protect the backline. The number 8 position places offensive obligations upon N’Golo Kante, and it is no surprise to see Kante’s decline in form coincide with his time in that position. When Lampard has deployed N’Golo Kante in a double-pivot midfield, he has thrived. Therefore, Lampard should abandon the failed experiment of Kante in the 8 position and convert Kante to a traditional sitting midfield. Kante shares qualities with Chelsea and French legend Makelele, suggesting he has the ability to thrive in the role. If Kante is to do so, be sure to see the Kante doubters vanish and the universal love from the Chelsea fan base increase even further.

By Felice Fierro

Edited by Jai Mcintosh and Dami Adeleye


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