Last summer, after rounds of strained and strange negotiations with Napoli Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, Maurizio Sarri was hired by Chelsea to make the Blues “fun” — that’s en vogue now. He stuffed his Sarri-ball instructions in a suitcase, along with Jorginho and six-hundred cartons of cigarettes, and headed to London. As for the fun? Well, perhaps there was a mix-up at baggage claim.
There are of course a number of legitimate reasons for the delay in fun. Metronome of Sarri-ball, Jorginho, not being able to cope with a press would be one. Another would be Hazard being asked to do more running than dribbling. Plus the notoriously inconsistent flailing around of a couple 30-year-old wingers. Marcos Alonso’s high defensive position. Ross Barkley having bouts of extreme Ross Barkleyness; Mateo Kovačić also having bouts of extreme Ross Barkleyness. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Six games from the end of the season, the result of all this is Chelsea in fifth, locked into a four-team battle for two Champions League places. But tucked beneath sports and social media’s need for debate, second-guessing, and fan angst, there has been a 5’6” tall, 158-pound silver lining named N’Golo Kanté.
Everyone’s favorite defensive midfielder — he collected ten (10!) individual Player of the Year awards from various organizations in his first three seasons in England — has been nudged from his most dominant position and asked to grow into a new role. With focus on other aspects of Chelsea’s season and the ever-present consternation toward Jorginho’s defensive awareness and frailty, there haven’t been many opportunities to check-in on just how well Kanté has risen to his new challenge. To do so, we need to divorce ourselves from the painful and frustrating memories of the numerous attacks and goals that never would have had a chance on his watch, and instead pluck him from the muck of this season and view him in isolation, where his fluorescence can more clearly be noticed.
Because Kanté is shy and dutiful, it’s easy to say nice things about him that don’t have much to do with football. I’m guilty as much as anyone: I’ve called him “adorable” more times than I’ve bestowed the label on my dog. I mean, have you seen him celebrate a goal? I was powerless. But Kanté’s greatest footballing gift is a near clairvoyant ability to read movements and decisions during the game. As if that wasn’t enough, the trait is then packaged with acceleration, stamina, and an ability to not just intercept, but take claim of the ball. He’s a supercomputer who can tire out a Jack Russell terrier.
This season he’s been tasked with transplanting these talents higher up the pitch, using them to press opponents, make forward passes and runs, and shoulder a portion of goal-creating duties. Credit to him, he gave up his deep-lying position without any fuss, and has often sounded eager to embrace the role and accept the challenge of repurposing his abilities — at 27 (now 28).
His acceleration and body control, once used almost exclusively to thieve the ball from opponents, has been applied to improving his dribbling and close control. His instincts and ability to read play, once used almost exclusively to prey on and mangle attacks, has been applied to incorporating dead ball turns into space, make third man runs into the box, and even pick up the occasional outside-of-the-boot assist. And his shooting, well, frankly it was always fairly poor. Sure the odd strike or two would waltz by the keeper — most often David De Gea, strangely enough — but it was understood that if anyone could make withdrawals from an excess of good karma, it’s N’Golo Kanté. That is, until he nutmegged three Spurs players with a sweetly struck first-time volley from outside of the box.
The moment that best illustrated Kanté’s development came against Crystal Palace, who, eight days prior, became the second team to defeat Manchester City (Chelsea were the first). Chelsea were doing that thing where the ball is passed safely around the box without ever actually threatening the opposition goal. Marcos Alonso picked up an early yellow card for defending poorly. Sarri was gesticulating on the sideline. It was a proper winter-is-here, 2018-19 edition Chelsea match.
Then in the 50th minute, David Luiz, with the ball at his feet and some thirty yards out, saw a yellow blur start to whoosh toward the penalty spot. He rolled the ball in position for one of his trademark looped passes that float over defenders and drop onto a teammate in a dangerous attacking position. That teammate was N’Golo Kanté. With a defender trailing closely he used his chest to push the ball into his stride, wound up his left (LEFT!) foot and struck the ball into the ground off the bounce. It wasn’t the purest strike, nor the most powerful, but it had enough on it to wrong-foot the goalkeeper, slide beneath his outstretched palm, and spin into the back of the net. The totality of it left many speechless; I resorted to a strange laughter. Wait, that player doesn’t have an afro and definitely isn’t Pedro. Wa- … was that ... N’Golo ... Kanté? It looked instinctual, maybe even planned. It was the result of a stunningly great footballer mixing old abilities with newly developed ones to do something none of us have seen him do before.
As thrilling as modern football is, as unique its stars, as immense as it is in quality, it’s also hyper-specialized. Players are what they are and do what they do with varying levels of very good-to-world class skills. They’re then shuffled between the best teams in the world, given tasks that suit their best traits, and create teams that attempt to impose their wills in refined — if not defined — ways. This makes the 2018-19 version of N’Golo Kanté rare and worthy of appreciation. Players of his caliber rarely get to transform into something else without an injury to another player making it necessary. There’s good reason for that, certainly, but that isn’t a good enough excuse to not enjoy something this unique, which has produced some fun, and frankly unexpected, results.
And since there’s a decent chance this will be Kanté’s last, possibly only, season in such a role, it would be a shame if we missed the opportunity to marvel at what he’s managed to do. After all, it’s not his fault the rest of the team can’t defend on their own.