Our football writer's opinion piece about the impact of N'Golo Kante at Chelsea.
A few weeks ago, Premier League legend Thierry Henry weighed in on the N’Golo Kante effect by stating that the French midfielder should win the coveted PFA Player of the Year award. Patriotic affiliation aside, it’s hard to argue with the logic of the silver-tongued French wizard. Kante was instrumental in Leicester City’s success last season, and his subsequent departure has coincided with a Shakespearean fall from grace for the Foxes. Conversely, Chelsea’s abysmal title defence last season ended in a 10th place finish. Since Kante joined the Blues, they have gone from strength to strength, and now hold a ten-point lead atop the standings. Just what exactly is the Kante effect, and how valuable is he?
Firstly, it’s worth noting that Kante has made more tackles over the course of the last three Premier League seasons than anyone else, despite only playing in the last two campaigns. It’s clear that Kante possesses an almost freakish work rate that allows him to cover vast swathes of ground. When Vardy and Mahrez were scoring goals for fun last season and earning all the plaudits, most astute analysts were noting that without Kante, none of that would have been possible.
Ranieri ostensibly used a standard 4-4-2, but his play focused on playing on the counterattack. It was Kante’s herculean ability to break up play - almost at will - that allowed Leicester to counter from more advanced positions.
Let it be stressed, Kante is not your standard holding midfielder. Former Chelsea bulwark Claude Makelele pioneered the role to the point that it became known as the ‘Makelele’ role. His job principally involved patrolling in front of the back-four, ferociously latching on to anything loose. Conte actually tried to utilise Kante in this role when attempting to use a 4-1-4-1 formation in the ill-fated start to their campaign. It never worked.
Kante is, above all things, a progressive midfield player. To try to curtail his tremendous athleticism would be a sin. Kante is always thinking of pushing the ball forward and advancing his side. He thus symbolises an evolution of the destroyer role, one where defensive skulduggery and offensive ambition have fused.
Another thing worth noting when it comes to Kante is that he hardly ever goes to ground. When one thinks of your traditional holding player, one thinks of Roy Keane sliding across a slick surface to execute maximum havoc, or Fernandinho getting sent off three times this season for City.
Kante eliminates the likelihood of falling prey to the occupational hazards that blight many midfield men. Furthermore, the fact that he wins the ball in an upright position allows him to initiate counterattacks seamlessly. His ability to play as effectively in Conte’s 3-4-3 system as Ranieri’s 4-4-2 illustrates the versatility of the man.
It’s quite amazing to think that Manchester United spent 100million pounds on compatriot Paul Pogba, whereas Chelsea managed to get Kante for just over 30. Kante’s level of indefatigable zeal tends to accentuate Pogba’s languid disinterestedness. It does, however, bring me to the one criticism one can launch at Kante. Pogba may sometimes drift through games with the casual indifference of a grown-up at Comic-Con, but he does have the ability to make an impact in the final third with a killer pass or sumptuous finish. That’s certainly an area where Kante could improve. His frenetic, bulldozing style needs a little more subtlety in the final third. If he were to somehow achieve that level of calm in the opposition area, just imagine what kind of player we would be dealing with here.
Written by Damien Kayat