Chelsea are unbeaten and in the top four, a state of affairs most of us would have been delighted with before the season began. But there are always rumbles of discontent somewhere. One of them involves N’Golo Kanté’s new role.
For three seasons, one at Leicester City and two at Chelsea, Kanté established himself as the best defensive midfielder in England, and probably the world. He even won the Premier League’s Player of the Season award in 2016-17 and finished eighth in that year’s Ballon d’Or voting — accomplishments rarely seen for players in non-attacking positions.
Maurizio Sarri however has a different vision of football. He prefers to control a game by keeping the ball, not by building an impenetrable wall. And he defends much higher up the pitch, with pressure. And so, the player in the position of control is a passer (Jorginho or Fàbregas) instead of a destroyer (Kanté or players like Makélélé or Mikel in years past), while the midfielders further forward are tasked with keying the actual defensive pressure. This means Kanté is playing higher up the pitch, with or without the ball. And since Chelsea dominate possession like no other team in England, he is frequently camped out right on the edge — even inside — the opposition penalty box.
Having gotten used to Kanté as a midfield anchor extraordinaire, this new position isn’t an immediately obvious use of his talents. But, defying any simple narrative or surface-level analysis, Kanté actually has the technical skill to play the position, and he still covers massive amounts of ground. In fact, like Allan at Napoli, he’s an integral part of what makes Sarrismo work. Sarri himself has said that Kanté is the only midfielder he can fully trust defensively.
Speaking to the media before Friday’s match against Netherlands in the Nations League, France head coach Didier Dechamps (who plays N’Golo Kanté in his “traditional” position and thus won a World Cup this past summer), fully backs the way Sarri is using him.
“He is able [to play higher up the pitch]. He can also play deeper where he is very useful and very powerful. At Chelsea he’s in more of a creative role. With what his coach asks him, and his system, he is brought to play very high.
“He has more freedom. He is very comfortable with the ball, so it doesn’t cause him any problems. He’s always having fun. Kante also takes it by playing deeper, but he is now in the offensive part, but he still has the quality of cutting out passes and recovering balls. He is a little more involved in attacks, in the last third or the penultimate pass. This is less frequent when he’s playing in front of the defence.”
-Didier Deschamps; source: ESPN
“I am enjoying the role. It is a new challenge for me. I try to understand the move and the right players’ combinations. I think we are doing well. We need to keep working and keep improving and I think we can enjoy a good season together.”
-N’Golo Kanté; source: Metro
Change is hard. Seeing defensively-suspect Jorginho parked in front of the back four and Kanté trying to spread his wings can lead to a lot of head-scratching, and even more hot takes ... and plenty of told-you-sos when something does go wrong.
It may take more than an 18-game unbeaten run in all competitions to change everyone’s minds. It may take a trophy or three. Since that’s also probably what it will take for Sarri to keep his job in the long run, this is a “problem” with a definitive solution.