Chelsea’s win against Manchester City is a definite high point for Maurizio Sarri and his team in his first season in charge. Ending their unbeaten run in the league and silencing their own critics in the process is also a bonus. Much has been said over the role of World Cup winner N’Golo Kante in Sarri’s system. Critics have claimed he doesn’t possess the skills to be effective further up the pitch and that Chelsea would concede fewer goals if he returned to his original position seen under Claudio Ranieri at Leicester and in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge at the Bridge. Whatever your own opinion is on his position, his performance against City has proved he can play in this system.
In the World Cup-winning team, Kante was played the deepest out of the midfield three. This usually included Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi. His effectiveness in that position is where we’ve come to know and appreciate his world-class ability in that defensive midfield role. Seen most famously in Leicester’s title-winning season and in Antonio Conte and Chelsea’s title-winning season, the latter seeing him win the PFA Player of the Year award.
How N’Golo Kante Proved He Can Play In Sarri’s System
His main skills are well documented; the ability to cover a substantial distance on the pitch and his fitness are almost unparalleled. Perhaps down to his Malian roots, he is naturally a running machine. Also, his dedication to the game off the pitch is the epitome of a professional. Despite only being 5’6″, his diminutive stature hasn’t affected his performances in midfield. His interceptions and tackling ability are paramount to stopping opponent counter attacks and winning the ball for his team. It saw him make the most tackles in Europe’s top leagues in both the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons.
Ever since his meteoric rise, he has been likened to former French midfielder Claude Makelele, sharing a similar build as well as skills. Antonio Conte praised his discipline in training and his mentality to look to always improve, also claiming that he was a ‘complete midfielder’.
Criticism This Season
Despite an already stellar career at 27, this year has seen him take on a whole new challenge. With the arrival of Jorginho from Napoli, it has seen Kante move from a holding midfielder to that of a box-to-box midfielder, whereas before, he had played that role for Leicester and with Conte at Chelsea. His main role was to break up play and win the ball back but with this Chelsea team being the most possession-based Chelsea team, perhaps ever, he has had to adapt his game.
Many claim he doesn’t possess the skills to be effective in more advanced areas. In terms of scoring goals, assisting and having that creativity. In addition, as a result of his slightly adjusted position, it means that, at times, Jorginho has been caught out as he doesn’t possess the physical capabilities of the Frenchman. Most notably, the Son Heung-min goal against Chelsea at Wembley where he blitzed past Jorginho in a footrace. Whereas, if Kante was in his original position, it would have been a whole lot more difficult to pass him.
In a dream midfield three for Sarri, he would most likely desire more technically gifted midfielders like he had at Napoli for his system to thrive, a team that most likely wouldn’t include Kante.
Many pundits and ‘experts’ called for Kante to be played in his original position. However, they fail to see that Kante cannot play Jorginho’s role. He controls the tempo of the team and is paramount to Sarri’s system. Therefore, he could not play in his holding role. He has to work with Jorginho and the other midfielder in the three.
How This Performance Should Change Perspectives
In the City game, however, we saw Chelsea weather the storm in the first half before taking control in the second. Kante was a close pick with David Luiz for Man of the Match as he produced an all round, dynamic performance; a performance that transcended the main bulk of criticism aimed around his position this year. In a defensive display from the Blues, Kante went back to basics as this pressing system actually suits his skill set. Winning balls, making runs deeper in the pitch combining with Hazard as well as all the usual traits of a Kante performance. It was capped off with a great finish in what was Chelsea’s only shot of the first half. Hazard rolled it across the box and Kante, in full sprint, managed a lethal, powerful shot into the roof of the net to score only his second of the season.
Everyone in football knows how effective Kante is. He would almost improve any team you place him into because he’s that good. What he is being asked to do this season is slightly above his skill set in terms of his technical ability. However, he possesses the ability to dribble well, press the opposition all game, an underrated passing range and he can also finish like we saw against City. Sarri must realise by now what he brings to the team. Whilst there are more technically gifted midfielders that could play in this three, no one can do what he does. Losing him to another club down the line because this system doesn’t suit him would be a travesty. Performances like we just saw give Chelsea fans that realisation that he can play in this system and he really is a one of a kind player.