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Chelsea news: Why N’Golo Kante is a square peg in a round hole in Maurizio Sarri’s system


During a meteoric rise that has seen him climb from the humble settings of the third-tier of French football to the pinnacle of World Cup final glory, N’Golo Kante has established himself as one of the finest defensive midfield players of his generation.

Over the past three summers, Kante has lifted two Premier League titles – with two different clubs – as well as the World Cup. Riyad Mahrez, Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappe scooped up individual accolades for the respective successes of Leicester, Chelsea and France but Kante’s selfless work in the middle of the park gave each the platform to express themselves.

Following the appointment of Maurizio Sarri as Chelsea manager in the summer, though, Kante’s role has undeniably shifted. Rather than patrolling the area in front of his defence, Kante has been encouraged to put his famed energy supplies to use by springing from box to box on the right of Chelsea’s midfield three.

Instead of building his midfield unit around a master interceptor and tackler, Sarri has installed a metronomic midfield passer there, in the form of Brazilian-born Italian international Jorginho.

Maurizio Sarri is a huge admirer of Jorginho’s talents (Getty Images)

Less than 24 hours after Sarri had been announced as Antonio Conte’s successor, Chelsea snatched Jorginho from the clutches of Manchester City. Not only was defeating City in a head-to-head transfer battle a significant statement of intent, it was also a major show of faith from the Chelsea hierarchy in their new boss.

Jorginho had been the centrepiece of Sarri’s Napoli side and acquiring him demonstrated a commitment to move away from the safety-first, counter-attacking style under Conte to a more controlled, methodical game under Sarri.

With a quarter of the season gone, Sarri has already made his mark. Chelsea rank top in Europe’s top five leagues for passes completed – they were 13th last season – while Jorginho is the only player to complete over a thousand passes.

Most passes completed in Europe’s top five leagues

Jorginho (Chelsea)1,060Aymeric Laporte (Man City)974Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona)920Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)883Aissa Mandi (Real Betis)873

With everything running through Jorginho, Kante has had to take a back, or rather sideways, seat, shifting into a right-sided position. Sarri’s idea was to utilise Kante’s athleticism higher up the pitch, stretching the play and giving Chelsea increased dynamism through the centre of the pitch, as he did with Brazilian international Allan at Napoli.

‘He has more freedom. He is very comfortable with the ball, so it doesn’t cause him any problems. He’s always having fun,’ Kante’s international coach Didier Deschamps said of his tactical shift at club level.

‘He is a little more involved in attacks, in the last third or the penultimate pass. This is less frequent when he’s playing in front of the defence.’

Deschamps’ comments that Kante is more involved in Chelsea’s attacking moves this season is accurate, to an extent. Kante has already matched the goal and assist he provided in 34 league games last season in just 12 this.

Kante is creating more chances this season, but only just – 1.25 chances created per game compared to 1.20 last season – while he is averaging just over a shot per game.

Kante’s dribbling statistics, meanwhile, make for interesting interpretation. Despite playing in a more advanced role, Kante is attempting fewer dribbles, while his success rate has plummeted to just 40% compared to 82% last season.

In the hustle and bustle of a Premier League midfield, a burst of acceleration can often be enough for a player to evade a challenge of an opponent but higher up the pitch, greater artistry is required to succeed in one-on-one duels.

Kante’s tackles and interceptions per-game last season compared to this season.

Unsurprisingly, Kante’s defensive output has dwindled this season, with the Frenchman winning considerably fewer tackles, making fewer interceptions and committing fewer fouls although Sarri might not be unduly concerned by such statistics.

If Kante recovers the ball by winning a tackle or making an interception higher up the pitch, there is a greater chance that it will lead to a promising attacking opportunity, than if he were to do so in front of his own box.

However, the numbers do indicate how much Kante’s natural game has changed already. He is contributing far less defensively and hasn’t yet managed to compensate for that with increased attacking output.

The result is that Kante resembles something of an in-between player at present: not quite a defender but not quite an attacker either.

Despite his overall ineffectiveness, though, Kante remains one of the first names on Sarri’s teamsheet. He is one of a quintet of Chelsea players to feature in every minute of their Premier League campaign so far. Not even Jorginho can match that, being substituted in Chelsea’s previous three league matches, including against Everton following an unusually subdued showing.

Neither Ruben Loftus-Cheek nor Cesc Fabregas has started a league game this season (Getty Images)

While Kante and Jorginho have been ever-presents in Chelsea’s starting line-up, Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovacic and to a lesser extent, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Cesc Fabregas, have had to compete for the third and final piece in Sarri’s midfield jigsaw. With perhaps the exception of Fabregas who is more of a Jorginho alternative, the other three are all arguably better fits for the box-to-box role that Kante currently occupies.

Considering it took so long for Kante to earn any sort of acclaim, it seems contradictory to consider that his presence in Chelsea’s team could be based on his reputation rather than his compatibility in Sarri’s system.

Kante is hardly the type to air his grievances publicly, if at all. This is a man who was reportedly too shy to pose with the World Cup trophy after all and he has insisted he is happy to play where Sarri wants him to, saying: ‘I am enjoying the role. It is a new challenge for me.’

Nevertheless, the over-riding feeling is that Chelsea are failing to get the best out of one of their few genuinely world-class players. For all his qualities, Kante is a square peg in a round hole.





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