The Resurgence of N’golo Kante
Prior to talking about the resurgence of N’Golo Kante this season, let’s cast our minds back to the end of last season and the opening few weeks of the summer transfer window. To the surprise of some, the narrative at the time was whether or not Chelsea should sell Kante in order to reinvest in a younger player who is less injury prone and will be able to give top level sustained performances each week.
This conversation birthed itself from the relatively underwhelming performances N’Golo was putting in towards the latter stages of the 2019/20 season. Additionally, an increasingly persistent string of injuries was beginning to show the slight chinks in his armour reminding the Chelsea fan base that he was, in fact, mortal. Kante has also suffered from the ongoing dispute as to where his strongest position is in the starting lineup. As the majority of fans readily agreed, his optimal position would’ve been in a double pivot alongside a slightly static distributor, however, with Frank Lampard looking to play a 4-3-3 with one sitting midfielder, Kante’s qualities in this role were questioned.
This is all in the past. Those who defended Kante from those wanting him sold are now, no doubt, feeling vindicated due to his consistent world-class performances, reminding everyone just how vital he is to the success of the club. So, to analyse the resurgence of N’golo Kante for the sake of this piece, I am going to break it down into two very simple categories, the eye test and a statistical approach.
N’Golo Kante: The Eye Test
We have all been used to watching Kante persistently harass opposition attackers and midfielders, one need only look back to his performance against Barcelona to understand the peak of his ability. Yet, the last two seasons prior to this one, Kante has looked like the foot has come off the accelerator slightly.
The tumult under the Italian smoke screen Maurizio Sarri witnessed Kante operating in a far more advanced role which the majority of the fanbase felt was particularly ineffective due to his lack of attacking intent, regardless of how hard he was trying, and to his credit, he tried relentlessly. Despite the increasingly frustrating performances from him, it was generally understood to be a product of the system he was situated within.
Last season Kante missed a considerable portion of the season due to injury and was also a victim to the changing system as Lampard was attempting to find an effective way of playing. It is worth mentioning at this point that, since joining Chelsea, Kante has had nine injuries and one period of rest due to the increased risk of COVID.
This was, and remains, a worry for the fans as it makes sense to suggest that he should move on to allow for the club to reinvest in a replacement with an improved injury record and at a good age profile to work in the side and be part of the longer-term project.
However, this season fans have witnessed, much to their enjoyment, a resurgence in N’Golo Kante’s form with the Frenchman once again looking like one of the best defensive midfielders in world football. When watching him play, his tenacity and desire to intervene when the opposition is transitioning allows him to get away with not being the most solid defensive anchor. His ability to disrupt play high up the pitch and win the ball back quickly means that, for the most part, he is able to operate as a defensive midfielder in a slightly abstract way as it seems as though he can break down oppositional attacks on a granular scale which, in my opinion, is one of the most aesthetically pleasing aspects of football to watch.
It is well worth mentioning that the increasingly stable defense behind him will have positively impacted his game. Not only has the backline vastly improved in comparison with those of the previous two seasons, there are now direct channels of communication, being that: Kurt Zouma, Thiago Silva, Edouard Mendy, and N’Golo Kante all speak French, his understanding of the structures behind him have clearly instilled him with greater security and confidence.
It has been an intelligent and perhaps unspoken aspect of Frank Lampard’s management ability as to how Kante’s role has been managed. Whilst it is the DNA of Kante’s game to break up opposition attacks and then look to play forward, he has been managed in a way that allows him to do what he does best in winning the ball back but now he can lay the ball off to either Mount, Kovacic or Havertz, saving him from having to run up the pitch with the ball at his feet.
In doing this his chances of sustaining further injury decrease and it allows him to play to his core strengths. To my mind, this echoes the way in which Brenden Rogers has managed Jamie Vardy as he has stepped into the latter stages of his career. Credit to both the management and the player on this one as it is evidently working excellently. Kante is clearly a player that is loved by fans, management, and the squad, and being both happy and confident on the pitch has seen a return to form for one of Europe’s elite defensive midfielders. Let’s not forget how nice it is to see him wearing the captain’s armband. Leading by example.
The Statistical Approach to N’Golo Kante
I myself am partial to a good peruse through some stats, however, this section need not be so long. I will briefly touch on some of his offensive statistics using the metrics put together by WhoScored and then will analyse in slightly more detail some of his defensive and passing statistics.
Let’s all be honest, Kante is not an attacker. However, it is worth looking at some of his offensive statistics just to get a basic understanding as to how well rounded he is, despite playing as the deepest player in a midfield three. So far this season Kante has one goal and two assists whilst averaging 0.6 key passes per 90 minutes and one dribble per 90 minutes.
When comparing these to other top defensive midfielders they are quite impressive. Manchester City’s Rodrigo has one goal, 0.8 key passes per 90, and 0.6 dribbles per 90. Additionally, Spurs’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg who has had an incredibly solid season so far has amassed two assists, 0.3 key passes per 90, and 0.7 dribbles per 90. Finally, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson who, whilst not being as defensive as the other two comparisons have only managed one assist, 0.8 key passes per 90, and 0.3 dribbles per 90. This is good reading for Chelsea fans considering the role Kante has been playing.
It is his defensive performances that have caught the eye, however. Having so far managed an impressive 2.2 tackles and 2.2 interceptions per 90 minutes so far this season alongside 1.6 fouls, always an enjoyable statistic, and 0.9 clearances per 90 minutes. Ranking first so far domestically for interceptions it is almost pointless continuing comparisons considering Kante’s defensive quality. However, what we can infer from the data is that Kante is considerably happier in the role he is currently playing in comparison with the past two seasons.
Sometimes, simplicity is beautiful, and allowing Kante to function in a position that gives him the necessary support whilst also allowing him to express his in-game style has proven to be exactly what the club has needed. In a side that has seen a lot of change, it feels good to have our N’Golo Kante back to his best. He may not be here forever, but he will certainly go down as a club legend and one of the greatest defensive midfielders to grace the Premier League.
As he reaches the twilight of his career, his performances remain evergreen and because of that, the smile he plays with is replicated by those who watch. Let’s hope this continues.
Written and edited by Jai Mcintosh @jjmcintosh5