When Chelsea kicked off against Aston Villa following the break in the 2019/20 season, there was one selection more than any other that raised eyebrows. It wasn’t the inclusion of Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the left wing, or even Olivier Giroud ahead of the fit-again Tammy Abraham at centre forward: it was N’Golo Kanté playing as a holding midfielder. To many casual fans, this has always been his strongest position, but in reality he hasn’t played there since the disastrous 3-0 defeat at the Emirates in September 2016, when Mesut Özil gave him a torrid time (after the match Antonio Conte famously changed to a 3-4-3 formation which won Chelsea the league, with Kanté crucial in a midfield pivot). Subsequently the Frenchman has started against Manchester City, Leicester and West Ham in the same position. So what does this tactical shift mean going forwards for Frank Lampard’s side?
When Lampard was unveiled as the new Chelsea manager back in the summer of 2019, he was asked whether he knew where he would play Kanté this season, replying, “yeah I do, thankfully”. Following the switch to a 4-3-3 from a 3-4-3 after the appointment of Maurizio Sarri in 2018, Kanté was shifted from his preferred role in a midfield pivot to a more attacking-minded number 8 in a midfield three, a move which angered fans and caused debates around the footballing world. So everyone was keen to see what Lampard thought his best position was, and from the answer he gave, many inferred that Lampard would play him in a pivot. However, following the 4-0 opening day drubbing by Manchester United (Kanté was only fit enough to come off the bench) where Chelsea played a midfield pivot in a 4-5-1, Lampard has reverted to the 4-3-3 preferred by his predecessor, and in doing so has played Kanté in the same role.
Whilst Sarri was maligned for his use of Kanté as a number 8, fans have been more lenient with club legend Lampard, and have even warmed to Jorginho thanks to his good relationship with the manager. The Italian had been played as a number 6 flanked by Kovacic and Kanté in the last campaign under Sarri, and Lampard has regularly used the same midfield three this term when all three have been available for selection. However, as the season has worn on it has grown clear that Jorginho does not possess the necessary speed and tackling ability to screen a porous Chelsea backline. This has been demonstrated by him picking up a huge 10 bookings in just 26 appearances this term, the joint highest figure in the league. He often brings down opposition players due to his inability to catch up and get goal-side of them: last season his top speed of 18.88 miles per hour ranked him as the slowest midfielder to rack up more than 1,000 league minutes. Kanté is comparatively rapid, clocking top speeds of 21.47 miles per hour in 2017, and so is able to stifle fast opposition forwards.
The Frenchman is an expert at making discrete tactical fouls to slow down opposition counter-attacks, only picking up 22 yellow cards for his 217 fouls in the Premier League to date, compared to his Italian teammate’s 18 yellows over 58 fouls (a rate of 9.9 tackles per booking compared to 3.1 respectively). This ability to break up fast break-aways without picking up suspensions is key, and it is a trait Pep Guardiola appreciates, with Fernandinho encouraged to make fouls on the half-way line to stop opponent’s attacks and allow his side to regroup.
While Jorginho’s figure of 4.4 tackles and interceptions on average per game is very good for a holding midfielder, he is still dribbled past a huge 1.7 times per game, a figure which rises to 2.7 in the Champions League this season, as he clearly struggles to cope with the pace of opposition attackers. No one in the Chelsea squad has been dribbled past more this season, and for context, Kanté has been dribbled past 0.9 times per game this term. This may in part be due to him playing in a slightly different position, but the 29 year old is clearly tougher to get past, using his speed and guile to keep up with opponents and nick the ball off them.
So if Kanté is so much more effective as a holding midfielder, why are we only just starting to see him being deployed there? The answer comes down to positional discipline. He has always been given a ‘search-and-destroy’ brief when playing in a midfield duo, allowing him the freedom to charge around dispossessing opponents regularly, whilst his partner( Drinkwater or Matic) sat deep and shielded the defence in his absence. However, we have seen a different side to Kanté since the restart, and the Manchester City game showed how far he has come. With City dominating possession, keeping 65% of it, Kanté held firm and regularly thwarted opposition moves in the final third. A perfect example of this was when he cleverly cut out an attempted pass to David Silva by Kevin de Bruyne, before sliding it into Willian on the right, with the counter-attack he set in motion culminating in a penalty from which Willian sealed the three points.
When Jorginho followed Sarri to Chelsea, he was given the responsibility of being the team’s heart-beat from a holding midfield role. The Italian is renowned across Europe for his distribution, and Chelsea had to beat Manchester City to his signature. With a monstrous 84.3 passes per game last season – second only to Laporte for passes per game in the league – it was clear Jorginho’s role was to set the rhythm of Chelsea’s monotonous attacking phases. Yet he didn’t manage an assist. For all of his passing ability, a staggering 46% of his passes were classed as regressive last season (they were sent backwards) and so the illusion that he would be at the centre of Chelsea’s forward play was dented. Even so, Jorginho still contributed creatively and was unlucky not to register more assists, potentially due to the consistently underperforming Gonzalo Higuaín playing up front. Kanté is often regarded as a less accomplished passer than Jorginho, and that may be true, but his 1.3 chances created per game is much more impressive than his teammates 0.8 this season.
Although there is a debate to be had over whether Jorginho is more creative than Kanté, moving the Frenchman to a holding midfield role frees up a place for more offensive-minded number 8s on either side of him. Whereas when Jorginho plays one of the other midfield three will likely be Kanté, if the World Cup winner plays deeper then Lampard can play two of Mason Mount, Mateo Kovačić, Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Ross Barkley with him. With Kanté’s extraordinary speed and endurance, as well as his incredible tackling ability (peaking at 3.7 tackles per game in the 2017/18 season, the third most in the league that season), Lampard may have more freedom to play two advanced 8s. This would squash any concerns about a lack of creativity in the side, as Mount, Barkley and Kovacic all create more chances per game than Jorginho.
A huge concern for Lampard has been a startling lack of goals from midfield this season. If we remove penalty goals (Jorginho is arguably the best spot-kick taker in the league and has bagged 3 this season), we have managed a measly 11 goals from our midfielders this term, and 6 of them have come from the boots of Mason Mount! For comparison, Man City’s midfielders have bagged 24 goals, and so it is clear to see why Lampard is desperate for our midfielders to carry some more of the goal-scoring responsibility for Chelsea. 21-year-old Mount is only going to improve his scoring record under the tutelage of the finest midfield goal-scorer of all time, and Loftus-Cheek proved to be an excellent marksman last season as he racked up 6 goals in 24 league appearances. Throw in consistent game time for Ross Barkley and we suddenly have a more diverse outlay of goals and won’t depend as heavily on our front three.
Kanté is not the greatest progressive passer in the side, with Jorginho and Gilmour more adept at playing balls into the final third. He often takes the safe option and exchanges passes with the back 4, but against pressing opponents like Liverpool and Manchester City, such calm ball retention is key to gaining a foothold in the game. With creators all around him, Kanté could begin to mould himself into more of a Claude Makélélé type player, screening his back four diligently, before starting attacks with an intelligent, yet safe, forwards pass. Makélélé had the extremely attack-minded Lampard beside him in a pivot, and still helped Chelsea to concede a meagre 15 league goals in the 2004/05 campaign. If Kanté could follow suit, our defence would suddenly look a lot more sound, even before improvements at centre back and left back are brought in.
There is also the possibility that Lampard could alternate between Kanté and one of Jorginho and Gilmour in the holding midfield role, dependent on the opponent and their style. For example, against a low block who do not press, such as Aston Villa, it might be useful to have a more adept progressive passer at number 6, as there is an emphasis on breaking down the opposition. However, when playing teams in the top half who tend to press aggressively, N’Golo Kanté looks set to start in the future, and after what we have seen of him in a number 6 role so far, this seems a smart move by Lampard.
Kanté is still only 29 years of age, and his illustrious countryman Makélélé managed to play at a high level for Chelsea up to the age of 35. This means Lampard has an extremely strong base off which he can build a team for the next half-decade. With his incredible physical attributes, his clever tactical fouls and wonderful ability to win the ball, Kanté could be the perfect holding midfielder in Lampard’s 4-3-3. After some work on his distribution and positional discipline he could be orchestrating a Chelsea side to major silverware in the very-near future. Having silenced questions about his ability following a difficult start to the season, Kanté has reinvented himself in a new role, and it could prove to be fundamental to Chelsea’s success over the coming years!
Written by Daniel New