Why Barton’s wrong about the most tactically influential player in the world

To say Joey Barton likes controversy would be a bit of an understatement.

In fact, he’s made far more out of an average career than most players of similar mediocre talent simply because he’s prepared to say outlandish things whilst marketing himself as some sort of misunderstood, philosophical connoisseur – who would be running the UN by now if the traps of a working class upbringing hadn’t cruelly forced him into the life of being an occasionally violent Premier League midfielder.

Barton has claimed many victims before; Roy Hodgson, Gareth Southgate and Barcelona’s club legend in waiting Neymar; but he can put arguably the most controversial notch on his anti-mainstream-opinion bedpost this week in the form of Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.

Despite being just a handful of games away from becoming the first player to win consecutive Premier League titles with two separate clubs, missing just two games over the last two seasons and most impressively operating as the driving force behind Leicester’s 2015/16 miracle, Barton recently told Le Journal du Dimanche (quoted by London Evening Standard) that the Frenchman is overrated – flattered by the ‘phenomenal team’ around him.

“At the moment, in England, people only swear by N’Golo Kante. It’s the fashion. For pundits, he’s the best midfielder in the world. Oh! He’s very good, but I played against him three weeks ago, and that’s not the case. He’s a fantastic destroyer in a phenomenal team, but not a creator.”

Once again, that would seem to contradict the fact Kante wasn’t in a phenomenal team last season yet still played a crucial role in his side pulling off arguably the greatest underdog story English football has ever written. But it’s quite clear from Barton’s comments, which certainly contain an undertone of envy, that he’s completely missed why many people rate the 25-year-old as the best midfielder in the world. I’d even go a step further and put him in the bracket for best player, regardless of position.

By now, we’re all aware of the midfield phenomena that is N’Golo Kante. So energetic he was caught passing to himself a few weeks ago, so relentless off the ball he ranks second throughout the Premier League for tackles per match and 14th for interceptions per match, so speedy he looks like a blur when bursting through on the counter-attack; but sometimes, it feels like we don’t truly appreciate what that all means.

First of all, Kante isn’t simply a duracel bunny fitted with a nuclear core. He may sometimes seem like a headless chicken putting in just enough mileage to make himself effective, but there’s a cleverness to Kante’s game that goes under the radar. He gets himself in the right positions to win the ball by anticipating the direction of play and more often than not gets his calls exactly right. They also say the first two yards are always in a player’s head, so judging by the speed Kante operates at, his footballing intelligence is up there with the very best of them.

Secondly and more importantly, Kante’s industriousness is so freakish it’s allowed his last two sides to operate with two in midfield instead of the three-man setup most teams in world football now adhere to – essentially offering the work rate of two players in the most athletically demanding area of the pitch.

The tactical importance of this cannot be overstated. Whilst the one-time England international may be right in claiming Kante doesn’t offer much in the way of creativity, his incredible energy, his ability to produce the legs of two midfielders, allows his teams an extra body in the final third. It’s the reason Leicester could play with two up front last season and the reason Chelsea can play with two inside forwards either side of Diego Costa as well as wide men bombing up and down the flanks. Obviously, an extra attacking player can create a huge advantage over the opposition.

In that regard, it’s hard to think of a player in world football so tactically beneficial as the Chelsea star. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo may be the greatest talents of their generation, but they don’t free up room for more attacking players in the same way Kante does – in fact, they often require bigger defensive shifts for those behind them. He may not be the greatest technician to ever grace the Premier League, he may not be a creative midfielder who can unlock opposition defences with the ball at his feet, but that impact on the whole structure of the team is what makes Kante one of the most influential players in the world at this moment in time.

Clearly, Barton hasn’t quite worked that out yet; surprising for someone who considers himself to be so uniquely academically gifted for a footballer. Then again, if Kante was partnering Barton in midfield and making him look as good as Danny Drinkwater last season or Nemanja Matic this year, the Burnley man would probably be giving his comments a little more thought, rather than simply mouthing off for the sake of sounding different.

The irony of it all, of course, is that Barton’s not even fit to lace Kante’s boots at the moment.