Several players have had their positions or roles altered, more or less drastically, with the arrival of Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea. Azpilicueta is once again a right back; Alonso is no longer a wing-back; Moses the same; Fabregas is becoming a regista, Barkley a central midfielder. Still, the one that’s drawing the most attention is N’Golo Kanté conversion from a central defensive midfielder (CDM) to ... a central midfielder.
Obviously, that’s a rather vague designation. There are defensive midfielders, central midfielders, playmakers, box-to-box midfielders, attacking midfielders, and so on. One player can be a combination of those, and two players can play the same position on paper, but in reality have two completely different roles. For example, Jorginho plays at CDM, but he’s not a defensive midfielder. He is more of a playmaker, or a regista. The great Claude Makélélé played the exact same position in the exact same formation, yet he was a purely defensive midfielder.
So where does Kanté belong? He is definitely a defensively minded midfielder. But, does that mean his ideal position is in the center? And if not, then why not? Let’s take a look.
Kanté CDM in a midfield trio
To analyse this option we need to travel down memory lane all the way to a barely remembered period, the only time when Kanté actually played in this position in the relevant past: yes, the beginnings of the Conte era. You may have forgotten, or chosen to forget, but when Don Antonio first arrived, Chelsea played in a 4-3-3 which included a midfield of Kanté playing behind Nemanja Matić and Oscar. That midfield was changed quickly after just a few games, along with the rest of the formation, into the famous 3-4-3. And the rest, as they say, is history.
To be fair, N’Golo wasn’t bad in it, tackling and intercepting just as he usually does. But, something was missing, and Conte recognised it, too. Kanté’s best quality is running and covering as much space as possible. Combined with exceptional anticipation, those are the characteristics that allow him to make it look like as there are in fact two of him. His positioning is very good as well, but, not quite on the level of elite anchor men of the past, such as Claude Makélélé, who made their trade by also controlling the midfield but without the mobility and quickness shown by Kanté.
In short, Kanté is good in this position, but it’s not ideal for him. Using him as a mere ‘shield’ for the back four behind a pair of more advanced midfielders limits his space to be truly effective. He’s capable of literally covering the whole pitch, except when he’s restricted to a narrow band of movement both horizontally and vertically.
Kanté CM in a midfield trio
This is where Kanté is playing now. This position naturally allows him to do exactly what I was talking about in the previous paragraph – it gives him the freedom and space to cover the whole pitch and win balls left, right, up and down.
Is this position ideal for him? Once again, no. Or at least not yet. Why? Because now he is expected to contribute significantly to the attack as well, and that’s where N’Golo’s game is the weakest. Now he has the responsibility to arrive in the box late and try to score a few goals. We’ve seen him many times with opportunities that the likes of Frank Lampard would have converted to several goals by now, but he only has the one.
Everything else is going to his advantage. He has the freedom, the space, he tackles, wins balls and participates in Sarri-ball passing and movement extremely well, but in the actual attacking aspect he needs to improve. I have little doubt that Sarri pays special attention in training sessions to Kanté, and probably Kovačić as well, practicing arrivals in the box and finishing chances.
Kanté CM in a midfield duo
This is actually N’Golo’s ideal position, as a defensively minded central midfielder — as opposed to a central defensive midfielder or a more box-to-box central midfielder, which were the previous two positions we looked at. This is the position he had played in his three previous seasons in the Premier League, in a 4-4-2 at Leicester City and a 3-4-3 at Chelsea. Both formations relied on a midfield pair, with Kanté partnering either Drinkwater or Matić or Fàbregas, depending on circumstance.
So what’s the issue?
Where Kanté is playing now is not really the wrong position for him, but it could be the wrong formation. In a midfield trio he could either play the CDM and find himself limited in freedom and space, or play the advanced CM and have increasing attacking responsibility. Basically, you need to choose to limit his greatest asset OR amplify his greatest flaw. That means neither of those options is wrong ... or right, for that matter.
But I would argue that it’s more wrong to stifle a player’s specialty. Flaws can always be, to a certain extent, amended through hard work. Give Kanté a few months, make him train shooting, finishing and arriving late in the box and he, as hard-working and humble as he is, could easily become good enough, if not better, in those aspects. Kanté’s equivalent in Sarri’s Napoli team was Allan, who had been a pure CDM prior to Sarri’s arrival in 2015, but was converted to a highly effective box-to-box midfielder. If he can do it, Kanté certainly can as well.
So the real issue isn’t N’Golo’s ideal position, but rather Sarri’s ideal system. Sarri always plays 4-3-3 and he does that for very clear reasons. In his system, there has to be a Jorginho in the CDM position – a metronome, a regista capable of dictating the play and having record amount of passes and touches per game. Playing Kanté in that role would limit him even further, and would just be downright silly.
Jorginho’s defensive frailties
Apart from Kanté not being great in attack, this is the biggest reason why many advocate for change. Jorginho won’t ever be confused for a Kanté or a Makélélé or even a Mikel. He may be good at breaking up play at times, but he’s a far cry from an actual defensive midfielder. So what he needs is precisely one such player playing in his vicinity. Sarri’s system needs a Jorginho in the center, and needs a powerhouse next to him to bring balance to the midfield.
So why not play 4-2-3-1?
The trouble with a 4-2-3-1 is that the metronome would no longer operate in the center and the formation would become extremely lopsided — Sarri’s Chelsea already attack more on the left than right, but this would exacerbate that tendency even more and make the system easier to defend against.
“But Kanté doesn’t look as good as before, even defensively“
That is a common complaint as well, and looking at the stats, it would appear that he truly doesn’t. He makes fewer interceptions and significantly fewer tackles than in the previous two seasons under Conte. But, a lot of that has to do with Chelsea’s increased control of any given match. When the team goes from 50 per cent possession to over 70 per cent, players by definition will have fewer opportunities for defensive actions. There is a reason that the Premier League’s leading tacklers do not come from big six teams, even though those teams almost all employ a high press most of the time.
That doesn’t mean Kanté’s importance is lower than before. On the contrary, knowing how vulnerable Sarri’s system is to counter-attacks, each and every counter-attack Kanté stops during the opponent’s meager 30 per cent of possession is worth his tiny weight in gold. This sort of prevention just wasn’t that crucial in Conte’s compact and cautious system.
Kanté is NOT playing in the wrong position in this system
He is actually playing exactly where he is supposed to be and Sarri would be unwise to mess with that. Kanté does need to continue improving in the attacking phase, but knowing him as we do, don’t be too surprised if he suddenly starts scoring – perhaps next game already, on Saturday against Spurs, with a header!