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On ‘very impressive’ N’Golo Kanté’s new, more attacking role at Chelsea under Sarri

Our beloved defensive midfielder has a new job

Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

We’re only two games into a new era of Chelsea football and it’s already clear that the changes are going to take some time to get used to.

For one thing, we are now a passing-and-possession team. Under Maurizio Sarri, the days of parking the bus are over. He wants to defend with the ball, not without it. It’s early days but the raw passing stats already tell the story.

For another, we’re going to have to get used to an asymmetric system of play, with the focus being on creating an imbalance for the defence to cope with, and then capitalizing on it. The last thirty minutes against Arsenal, after the introduction of Eden Hazard and Mateo Kovačić, saw Chelsea focus heavily on the left side. It’s not a coincidence that Sarri put three attacking players there — the two subs plus his most attacking fullback, Marcos Alonso.

On the other side? His more defensively-skilled players, N’Golo Kanté and César Azpilicueta, with Pedro (or Willian, if need be) able to move to left to create the overload.

Which brings us to the point of of this story, change. For two years we’ve delighted in the magnificence that is N’Golo Kanté sitting deep in front of the backline, breaking up play and covering prodigious amounts of ground. He’s the best in the world in that role.

And he’s not going to be playing it much any more. In Sarri’s system, the weak-side midfielder is there to pounce when defenders get drawn to the overloaded side. We saw it in the first half against Arsenal, when Kanté drifted into the middle and got a shot off after Willian penetrated deep on the strong side.

As Sarri said after Huddersfield;

“He is playing like a centre right-midfielder and I am very happy for the performance of Kante. I am really very impressed.”

-Maurizio Sarri; source: Sky Sports

The numbers don’t lie. Sky estimates that while Kanté covered his familiar 12 kilometres, he also had three shots against the Gunners. That’s four times his per-game average from last season. On top of that he also created four other scoring opportunities, the most on the team. He had five touches in the box, according to Sky, which is a massive ten times his average last season.

With one goal to his name in just the first two games, he’s already matched his tally from last season. Nobody expects it to stop there. Sarri is positioning him to get good opportunities, like the one he gobbled up from the weak side against the Terriers.

Which is all well and good, but if Kanté is playing higher, who’s going to protect the back line?

In the last fifteen minutes of the first half, Arsenal were rampant, tore Chelsea to shreds and scored two quick goals to draw level. That’s no way to win cups or even the top four. Something has to change, right?

Yes, agrees, Sarri. But it’s not Kanté’s role. The failure against Arsenal wasn’t the lack of a defensive midfielder, no matter how badly Jorginho was exposed or drawn away from the middle, leaving a hole that Arsenal gleefully exploited.

As Sarri explained after the match, the failure was letting Arsenal even get into positions to create trouble.

“I think we have done very well for 75 minutes, 15 minutes were horrible. We lost distances. We were not able to press, only one player or two players. I think that the players were very good in the second half because it was not easy for the final part of the first half.

“...we need to stay very compact and press in the other half. In that 15 minutes we were not able to do this. So we were in trouble.”

-Maurizio Sarri

In essence, two things failed. One was that Chelsea lost possession, which is the first line of defence. The second failure was the disorganization of the press. Some players closed on the ball, others didn’t and that resulted in open spaces that Arsenal skillfully exploited.

When Sarri talks about needing two months to get his players to execute his tactics, he doesn’t just mean his attacking formations or his infamous 33 set plays. He’s also — in fact, maybe even primarily — talking about defensive organization. Where and when to press and when to drop back and consolidate. Recognizing the keys. Reading the game.

The statistics say he knows what he’s doing. At Napoli he had the lowest goals conceded-per-game of any coach since 2004.

And that once again brings us back to Kanté. To create a weak-side attacking threat, to maintain possession and play in the other team’s half and to press, N’Golo cannot sit deep. He consistently needs to be much higher up the pitch than we’re used to seeing him.

It’s going to take some getting used to. But it’s one of the keys that makes Sarrismo what it is — a fearsome force.

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