The summer of 2018 saw the happy ending to N’Golo Kanté’s incredible rise from Ligue 2 to World Cup winner materialise. At 27 years old, the Frenchman was at the peak of his powers, and arguably the best midfielder in the world. Now two years older and increasingly more injury prone, can the Premier League’s standout midfielder of the last 5 years still be placed in the ‘world class’ bracket, and is there still a place for him in Frank Lampard’s youthful Chelsea side?
Famously a back-to-back title winner, first with Leicester and then with Chelsea in 2015/16 and 2016/17 respectively, Kanté was integral to the success of both sides. Playing in a midfield pivot, whether that be in Claudio Ranieri’s 4-4-2 at Leicester or Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 at Chelsea, Kanté was a bundle of bustling energy, breaking up opposition attacks all over the pitch. He carried on this role with the French National side at the World Cup, partnering Paul Pogba in a system that alternated between 4-3-3 in possession and 4-2-3-1 when the ball was lost, with Kanté sweeping up trouble whenever it arose. It was clear for all to see that Kanté had revolutionised the box-to-box midfield role, not as a goal scorer but as a destroyer capable of claiming back the ball anywhere and everywhere. He truly was one of a kind.
Then came the arrival of Maurizio Sarri to Stamford Bridge and his controversial positioning of Kanté on the right of a midfield three. It is a position which Lampard has continued to place the Frenchman in, following his succession of Sarri in the dugout last summer. Debate has raged as to where Kanté is most effective and which position allows him to showcase his phenomenal abilities, with many incorrectly remembering him as a Makelele-type player, happy to sit deep and shield the defence. At his best, Kanté was a blur of limbs, racing across the turf to counter opponents head on. This role is best suited to the aforementioned midfield pivot, but with Lampard seemingly preferring a 4-3-3 to make the most of his plentiful supply of midfield riches, Kanté can no longer occupy his favoured role. According to whoscored, Chelsea have played 15 league games in a 4-3-3 formation compared to 8 in a 4-2-3-1, most of which came early in the season before Lampard switched to a three man midfield. So with Kanté wasted in a deep lying role in the centre of a midfield three, with his constant movement having to be substituted for strict positional awareness and his dribbles swapped with metronomic passes from the back, could he suit the role of a roaming number 8? And will his body hold up for another few seasons of his intense playing style?
Kanté’s season has been very stop-start, with three separate injuries keeping him out for three league game each. Having started at least 34 league games in each campaign since arriving in England in 2015, Kanté has only made 16 out of a possible 29 starts this term. In the past, a Chelsea side without the Frenchman in it would have opposition sides licking their lips, but this season the Blues have gone unbeaten in the 11 league games he has missed, winning 9 of them. This is not to say that Chelsea are necessarily a better side without him, but it does suggest that there may be life after Kanté, something which seemed unlikely two years ago. The nimble midfielder may finally be paying the price for his energetic, powerful style of play, with the strain on his body beginning to become apparent. Covering the fifth highest amount of ground in the league last season with 407 kilometres, can Kanté continue to throw his ageing body around as much? Will the power and stamina which has so long been a staple of his game give up on him? Or is the bigger problem here his positional change?
For the past two seasons Kanté has been forced to adapt to his new position in a midfield three, with his performances being reasonably solid on the whole. The problem is that Kanté doesn’t deal in reasonably solid performances, and the fans have come to expect more from their star player. Standout displays in games against Liverpool in the league and Super Cup as well against Manchester City have reminded everyone of his quality, although recent poor showings against Leicester and Arsenal, with an unfortunate slip in the latter leading to a goal, have slightly tarnished his season. His 3 league goals at a rate of one every 460 minutes so far result in his best goal ratio for a season, his previous best being last term’s 4 goals arriving every 774 minutes. This emphasises his new role in our side, as he progresses the ball forwards and shoots when the opportunity arrives. However, these are far from elite numbers, with fellow midfielder Kevin de Bruyne managing 8 league goals and 16 assists this campaign. Kanté has never been a goal scoring midfielder, making his shift to a more attacking presence even more confusing. While his attacking output may have slightly upgraded, his defensive statistics have plummeted. The improvement on last seasons’ average tackles and interceptions per league match from 3.2 to 4.2 may seem encouraging but look closer and it represents a massive drop off from his monstrous 6.2 tackles and interceptions in the season leading up to the 2018 World Cup, and a ridiculous 8.9 in his solitary season at Leicester. The fact that four years on from his switch to South London, Kanté’s defensive numbers have more than halved emphasises his dip in form.
There are positives to the Frenchman’s positional switch, with other areas of his game actually markedly improving since he took up a more advanced role. His 0.8 key passes a game in the title winning 2016/17 season have rocketed to an average of 1.3 every match, as an onus has been put on his creative play. He also takes more shots per game with 0.9 this season compared to 0.6 in 2016/17, as well as being dribbled less often (0.9 times per game compared to 1.3). His more attacking game is also reflected in his average number of crosses per game soaring from 0.1 in 2016/17 to 0.6 this season, as he gets forwards and aims to cause the opposition defence problems.
However hard I try to put a positive spin on Kanté’s move from part of a midfield pivot to playing on the right of a midfield three, there is no hiding the fact that he has suffered as a result of playing in a new, more attacking position. He has traded in his special skill set – namely tackles and interceptions – which helped make him a world class midfielder in the first place, for average attacking numbers. For example, his creative and crossing numbers do not shape up well when compared with elite, offensive-minded midfielders such as de Bruyne, who makes an average of 3.7 key passes and 2.5 crosses per game (over three times what Kanté averages in each metric). Baring this in mind, it seems that Kanté is an average Premier League number 8. As we discussed earlier, his dynamism and lack of positional awareness do not suit a deeper lying number 6 role either, so the question becomes: will Lampard change his system to accommodate his most valuable player?
If Lampard decides to stick to his preferred 4-3-3 next season, with a number 6 screening the defence behind two roaming number 8s, will Kanté get in the side? Kovacic is a much better dribbler, his average of 2.8 dribbles per game this season dwarfing Kanté’s 1.2, as well as being a superior passer of the ball, with his 63 passes per game coming at an average of 89.6% accuracy compared to the Frenchman’s 48 passes at 83.2% accuracy. Mason Mount has been superb this season, contributing 10 league goals and assists so far compared to Kanté’s 3, and has taken more shots per game (2.3) and made more key passes (1.5 per game) than his French teammate. Arguably Kanté is also behind a fully fit Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the pecking order for a number 8, with the English man’s average of 3 dribbles a game at Crystal Palace in 2017/18 solidified by an even more staggering 3.6 for the Blues in last seasons’ Europa League. With Ross Barkley and Conor Gallagher very able deputies in the 8 role, and Gilmour, Ampadu and Jorginho potentially scrapping it out for the number 6, where does that leave Kanté?
A very difficult decision lies ahead for Lampard. With Kanté rated by transfermarkt as our most valuable asset at £72 million, he could potentially command an astronomical fee (depending on how the current pandemic affects the market, which is yet to be seen). Seemingly unable to fit into Lampard’s current system, could it be time to offload the Frenchman before his value decreases as he grows older and potentially suffers more injuries?
It is this writers opinion that we must keep Kanté, as he is (in my opinion) our only current world class player. Yes, his statistics have drastically declined recently, but I put that mainly down to his change in position rather than due to any deteriorating ability. I think with our current squad we should potentially look to play a 4-2-3-1 next season, with Kanté back in his favoured midfield pivot role. We may have struggled not this season using this system, largely due to the lack of a natural number 10 to play behind Tammy Abraham, with Mount often forced to play there. However, with the arrival of Ziyech and his astonishing creativity (he averages a stunning 3.7 key passes per Eredivise game), Chelsea have the ideal solution to our dilemma. Playing two central midfielders may seem a waste to many (and they make a good point) with all of our options, we simply must utilise Kanté in his strongest position, with his performances from 2015-18 proving why.
To conclude the article, I feel that there is still a world class player in Kanté, as he has shown on occasion this season, and with a good rest and a shift back to a central midfield two, he can show the world his quality once more. However, it is my feeling that if we are unable to accommodate Kanté in a two man pivot then we should sell him before his value plummets as he passes 30. It is now up to Lampard whether he wants to build his team around Kanté, keep playing him out of position or sell the fan favourite. Whatever he decides I will be fully behind him, but I hope I have outlined to you the key factors in the Kanté dilemma. Wherever you are, keep safe and keep the blue flag flying high.
Written by Danny New