Much has been made of N’Golo Kanté’s new role this season, as Maurizio Sarri decided to move Chelsea’s most important player from the position that made him a Premier League Player of the Year and a Ballon d’Or candidate, shifting him from the center to the right side of midfield and pushing him forward into more of a box-to-box role.
It’s a clear shift in philosophy for Chelsea, from the pragmatism of Mourinho and Conte to the idealism of Sarri, whose system relies on a different profile of a player in what was previously Kanté’s position — neither Jorginho nor Fàbregas will ever be confused with Kanté, especially off the ball.
But on Saturday, Sarri showed a bit of pragmatism for the first time as Chelsea head coach, and it paid off in spades.
So here we go #CHEMCI— Sébastien (@SebC__) December 8, 2018
What is that? Looks like Andre Villas Boas' medium-low block to beat Valencia 3-0.
Good, so Chelsea and Sarri did adapt at one point sitting deeper. pic.twitter.com/NXlQa2nIHu
Kanté still played in his new role of course, but like the rest of the team, he was a bit more conservative, ready to “suffer” (there’s that word again!) without the ball when necessary.
It’s also helping that Kanté is starting to become more familiar with the role and starting to exert influence at both ends of the pitch as a true box-to-box force — including the opening goal against Manchester City, a result of a rather classicly Lampard-ian late run and thumping finish from the top of box after an Eden Hazard cutback.
“We did not necessarily pay attention to Manchester City statistics. We knew we were playing against a good team. I think we had a good match, we were able to suffer when we needed to, and we seized the opportunities.
“The coach trusts me. I’ve been playing this [role] since the beginning of the season. I’m doing my best. [Sarri] continues to make me play. I have the confidence of the teammates and the club.”
-N’Golo Kanté; Source: RMC Sport via Google Translate
Kanté now has two goals to go along with two assists on the season, which makes him Chelsea’s most productive midfielder after Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley, and also continues his habit of scoring against teams from Manchester — 3 of his 5 career Chelsea goals have come against Manchester United or Manchester City.
“The most important thing is to give my best on the pitch. I am happy when I can be on the scoresheet and to have scored my second goal of the season. Sometimes I have chances in this position to score. I reacted, got there and had a shot.”
All in all, it was a strong performance by Chelsea who have shown that there is some flexibility within the Sarri-ball dogma and also showed the sort of mentality and attitude required to truly challenge for titles and a sustained top-four challenge.
But, as Sarri said, the win will be useless without building on it, without continuing on with strong performances as we enter the festive fixtures period.
“We are happy with the win. It’s a good feeling. I think they are the best team in England.
“It was important to react after the defeat on Wednesday. We did it the right way and we need to continue like this in the next games.”
-N’Golo Kanté; Source: Chelsea FC
Most goals for Chelsea in a Premier League season ⚽️⚽️— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 8, 2018
Most assists for Chelsea in a Premier League season ️ ️
N’Golo Kanté setting two PBs already. pic.twitter.com/mKCyJOfv3r