In the three years since arriving in England from France, N'Golo Kanté has become one of the best midfielders in the world, proving invaluable to Premier League titles at both Leicester City and Chelsea by playing at the base of midfield and shutting down any and all attacks by the opposition. His tackling numbers were off the charts, his interceptions were legendary, and he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He played as if there were two of him, the joke went ... except it probably wasn’t really a joke but the amazing reality of the N’Golo Kanté twins.
But then Maurizio Sarri rolled into town, brought along his own personal deep-lying midfielder, and, rather unthinkably, shifted Kanté to a different position. Claudio Ranieri, Antonio Conte, Didier Deschamps all utilized Kanté in the same manner, and they won two Premier League titles and a World Cup in doing so. But Sarri doesn’t play by other people’s rules.
With Jorginho sitting deep and central — for attacking reasons, not defensive ones — Kanté has been shifted to the right and generally further forward. He’s now much more involved in the attack; in fact, in the very first league game under Sarri, he even scored a goal from a position he had never even accidentally got into in the previous two years. This role does enable Kanté to help with the high press better as well, but overall, he’s now using his technical skills a lot more than before (the quality of which surprised and impressed even Sarri).
While one would expect quiet, humble Kanté to never ever complain, especially in public, about something he’s asked to do, it would appear that he’s taken a fair liking to his new instructions. It helps that they are not truly that new to him, just new to him in England.
“It’s good to be versatile. When I played in France, I did not play as a ‘sentinel’ with Caen and Boulogne-sur-Mer. It’s mostly something that happened in England with Leicester and Chelsea.
“Even if I was not alone in sentinel because we played with two, I do not regret leaving this post [sitting deep and shielding the defence] to go a little higher. I appreciate playing in this role [where I am] a little higher, to accompany the attacks and to return sometimes when it is necessary to defend. This is a new thing and I like it with this coach who has a well planned game. I like working in this system.
”To be higher on the field, to combine higher with the attackers, to play fairer and to have to create something is part of the game in this position. It’s a new challenge for me and I try to be up for the team and for myself.”
-N’Golo Kanté; source: RMC Sport via Google Translate
The transition hasn’t been perfectly smooth — the Arsenal match with its midfield and defensive breakdowns comes to mind — but Kanté’s learning and improving every day, just like Chelsea. And he’s even managing to fit in some of his old responsibilities as well, stopping the opposition at will and chasing down rogue counters with his usual jaw-dropping magnificence.
As ever, if the Blues are to have any success this season, Kanté will be key, regardless of what exact position and role he’s playing.