It was an issue that made headlines throughout last season, generated practically endless debates, and was even brought up during Frank Lampard’s initial press conference. The new head coach assured with a wink and a laugh that “thankfully”, he does indeed know where to play N’Golo Kanté.
The idea that was being laughed at was of course Maurizio Sarri’s insistence to play Kanté as a more advanced attacking player in a midfield-three, rather than the more purely ball-winning defensive player in a midfield-two like Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte did. Sarri’s idea wasn’t necessarily without merit — Kanté could key the high press and win the ball higher up, which is what we wanted to do, and even get on the end of attacking moves, and still track back when needed to help out Jorginho — but in reality, it lead to a porous and weak midfield that was far too often exploited by the opposition, despite the numerical advantage on paper. Sarri’s belief that Kanté wasn’t technically good enough to play an anchoring role was also rather laughable, but let’s dwell on that part too much.
Kanté was unsurprisingly a good sport throughout it all, and, after reminding everyone that he used to play a similarly more advanced role earlier in his career, he seemed more than happy enough to learn a few new skills, grow his repertoire, and come out an even more well-rounded midfielder on the other side. As he tells the official Chelsea website, it added a new dimension to his game.
“The position I played gave me more opportunities to score. It was like another type of my game to improve. I think I improved my positioning and my movement in the more advanced role.”
-N’Golo Kanté; source: Chelsea FC
In theory then, we have an even better version of N’Golo Kanté on our hands, one who was already the best midfielder in England under Conte, but now with additional weaponry and attacking nous.
So perhaps the question of where to play Kanté isn’t nearly as easy and obvious to answer as we might think. He would surely be wasted as just a single holding midfielder — Lampard preferred a 4-3-3 at Derby — which is a role he’s rarely even played to begin with. He was quite magnificent in a midfield-two under both Ranieri (4-4-2) and Conte (3-4-3), but that was before he showed how great he can be as an advanced midfielder to key a high press and defend from the front, which are some of the more modern trends that Lampard himself also subscribes to.
Lampard says he already knows where he will play Kanté. But as we saw with Conte, who also started with a 4-3-3 before going back to the drawing board, sometimes those initial ideas don’t translate into the success we think they might and a quick rethink may be in order.