When N’golo Kante joined Chelsea in 2016, he was the ideal box-to-box midfielder for Antonio Conte and the best option to rejuvenate a poor Chelsea side of the previous season.
During Conte’s tenure (over two seasons), Kante played 69 out of possible 76 premier league matches, collecting individual accolades, such as 2017 PFA and Football writers player of the year, as well as the Premier League and FA Cup titles. He was always ever-presence and never doubted during Conte’s era.
Conte’s second season in charge led to Chelsea dropping from 1st to 5th and consequently Conte was dismissed. Mauirzio Sarri was then appointed Chelsea manager in July 2018 along with his first signing Jorginho, the player who embodied his playing style the best. A player who was also courted by Pep Guardiola during that summer.
Jorginho’s arrival meant that he would become a permanent figure in the number 6 position that Kante carried out perfectly well for Chelsea and France. Likewise, it also meant a switch from a double pivot midfield to a lone midfielder in front of the defence as this was part of Sarri’s renowned 4-3-3 formation.
As a result, the use of Jorginho as a regista was the way forward for Chelsea, and why not, he was Sarri’s man and the player who he trusted to help make his system work. Sarri wanted his number 6 to start attacks from deep, circulate possession of the ball and keep the team ticking over, qualities the defensive-minded Kante lacks due to his limitation as a football player.
As a result, Kante was deployed further forward and as Chelsea often played teams that defended with a low block and would continue to do so, Kante often became a man less in attack for Chelsea, as he often thrives on running into space rather than playing the game with his back to goal.
Moreover, his ability to contribute to the build-up play from deeper position didn’t help Chelsea’s offensive play when attacking against 10 men behind the ball. Therefore, making Kante more redundant and less of an asset for the team going forward, as Chelsea had switched from counter-attacking football to more of an attacking possession-based.
A similar comparison can be made towards Morata of struggling with his back to goal game against teams that defended quite deep.
Furthermore, the arrival of Mateo Kovacic who is more suited as a deep-lying midfield and who is a ball winner, a ball carrier, can beat the press whilst releasing the pressure of his team, also limited Kante’s playing time in his second preferred position as an 8.
As a result, this meant Kante was pushed even further up the field and often the most offensive of Chelsea’s midfield three. Additionally, whenever Kovacic was often replaced by Barkley Chelsea lacked even less quality offensively. Therefore, with poor form and a poor attacking play, Chelsea’s blistering bright start stagnated.
Moving along to Chelsea’s start under Frank Lampard, Kante absence led to the partnership of Kovacic and Jorginho as a double pivot, as they both provided quality ball possession, good distribution and initiated attacking play. This also meant Chelsea could include another attacking outlet often Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic who both benefited from the work of the midfield duo that often saw them in various of attacking situation. Not to mention the addition of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner who could both enjoy the similar success of Mount and Pulisic have.
Although Chelsea did enjoy two great away wins against Tottenham and Arsenal with a Kante and Kovacic double pivot. They had less possession and often played on the counter-attack. Similarly, the away win vs Arsenal was encouraged by the introduction of Jorginho who changed the game and scored the equalise.
However, if Chelsea does want to keep Kante they must have better quality in front of him to spare him of any quality ball possession, also behind him with ball-playing centre backs (something Chelsea have failed to do with the transfer embargo, average signings and players past their prime), for him to focus on what he does best and defend and release the pressure of his teammates just like he does for France and during Conte’s first season when Chelsea had an in-form Eden Hazard and a great striker like Diego Costa.
This is quite similar to the works of Real Madrid’s Casmiero and Javier Martinez when he initially joined Bayern Munich. Their defensive play allowed their more talented offensive teammates to concentre on attacking and doing what they do best.
On the other hand, it can be argued that the restart of the season has shown Kante has been deployed as a lone DM and showed great defensive qualities. However, matches against Aston Villa particularly, West Ham and Watford demonstrated teams often allow him time in possession believing that creating chances or good distribution may not be forthcoming.
Therefore, Frank Lampard must be pondering what he must do to solve this Kante dilemma and Chelsea’s footballing style for the new season ahead. If the decision is to sell, then factors such as Kante’s age, the upcoming players in the academy, his reoccurring injuries, potential new arrivals coinciding with his transfer fee, must all be playing on his mind.