It’s no coincidence that upon his first game working under the most offensive-minded manager of his career, Maurizio Sarri, N’Golo Kante matched his Premier League average of goals per season – one – from his three terms in the English top flight.
It’s not only a homage to Sarri’s philosophy, and how Huddersfield failed to impose themselves at home against a team that was only conceived one weekend prior against Manchester City, but also the qualities in Kante’s skill set that are often overlooked.
Having never averaged less than 3.3 tackles and 2.4 interceptions per match in any of his Premier League campaigns, the assumption of Kante being merely a playbreaker – albeit, probably the best one in the world – is understandable if not somewhat inevitable. But actually, Kante’s two title-winning seasons have owed as much to his lung-bursting dynamism going forward as his dogged tenacity off the ball.
At Leicester City, he provided the up-and-down energy in midfield buzzing around a more stationary Danny Drinkwater, and during his first season at Chelsea he offered the same kind of service alongside Nemanja Matic – a good mover for his size, but unable to burst forward in quite the same way. In fact, when he first signed for the Foxes in summer 2015, Claudio Ranieri initially lined Kante up on the left wing; he didn’t view the bargain arrival from Caen as an exclusively defensive element of his engine room at all.
In contrast, the only time Kante – who Transfermarkt value at £72million – has really disappointed in a Chelsea shirt was straight after his arrival at Stamford Bridge, when he was used as the anchor in a three-man midfield. He just didn’t have the same kind of impact on the game, struggling to inject the same level of energy into it, and on the ball he probably ended up in too much space for a player who would admit he’s never been that type of technically gifted, creative metronome dictating possession in the middle of the park.
But summer signing Jorginho certainly is, and that’s allowed Sarri to carve out a new role for Kante – the role he probably should have taken up when Antonio Conte was still experimenting with 4-3-3, and the role that allowed the French World Cup winner to charge into the box against Huddersfield to apply a finish to Willian’s cross.
It may seem counter-intuitive to situate a supposed playbreaker ahead of a passer in midfield, but it’s not too dissimilar to how Sarri utilised Allan – another nippy, energetic midfielder – at Napoli. He went from scoring one during his final season at Udinese to five during his last term under Sarri.
And it’s actually quite a common theme in Italian football; Juventus’ title-winning revival after returning from Serie B owed much how to Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba provided steely protection, industriousness and dynamism in front of Andrea Pirlo.
And yet, we shouldn’t be naive. While playing as part of the duo in front of Jorginho will naturally highlight strengths in his game that have previously slipped under the radar, and while the license to push further forward should see Kante win the ball high up the pitch in much more dangerous areas – something that could be instrumental in transforming Chelsea into a high-pressing, offensive team akin to Manchester City and Liverpool – there’s no doubt the technical aspects of his game require more work.
It’s something Conte often urged the midfielder to improve upon and it appears to have been in Kante’s thoughts for some time as well, recently revealing the idea of adaption has been on his mind since news of Sarri’s arrival first broke.
“Now the system is something different, especially the way we play now. So, even during the holidays, we were thinking and talking about how to adapt. It will require a lot of sacrifice from us all, so that is why I have to continue moving forward as a player. I have worked with different managers in the past and different systems. The best way to always keep your position (in the team) is to remain focused and have the same attitude towards everyone. So that is what I am going to try to do again this season.”
N’Golo Kante, Summer 2018
But if Kante has proved two things throughout his time in English football, it’s firstly a relentless desire to succeed and secondly a capacity to continuously grow – to embrace the challenges placed in front of him and silence whatever doubters he may have. That no doubt stems from how many rejections he’s suffered throughout his career, often told he was too small and too slight for top-level professional football yet eventually ending up as a World Cup-winning midfielder.
And should Kante embrace this latest challenge in the same way, not only demonstrating the qualities he can already bring to a more offensive engine room role but also improving upon them, perceptions will inevitably change; the Chelsea star will be arguably the best midfielder in the world, rather than just the best play-breaker.
The transition is still very much in its formative stages, but the early signs from that goal against Huddersfield are certainly encouraging.