Football Features

Can Chelsea afford to sell N’Golo Kante?

By Harry Edwards

N'Golo Kante: Can Chelsea afford to sell midfielder this summer? | Squawka

Published: 17:25, 6 September 2020 | Updated: 17:47, 7 September 2020

As transfer windows go, there aren’t many teams that are having a better one than Chelsea in the summer of 2020.

The Blues have already added five new players to their first-team squad, signing Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Ben Chilwell, Kai Havertz and Thiago Silva, and are still being linked with more business before the window is done.

One of the only positions that has been largely unchanged is central midfield, though that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been affected.

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With various potential formations flying about for Chelsea next season, Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic will compete for what may be just two remaining slots in midfield, whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.

Kovacic is expected to be a big part of the team, having scooped up Chelsea’s Player of the Season award for 2020/21, leaving just Jorginho and Kante.

Had the question been posed back in March, many would actually have backed Jorginho to win this one-one-one. But the Frenchman pushed his £50m teammate out while enjoying a run in the team in June. However, despite the fight for a spot, both have been linked with a move away from Chelsea this season, potentially in view of freeing up funds for further business.

Right now, Kante seems more popular with would-be buyers. Reports link him to Inter Milan and a reunion with Antonio Conte. But can Chelsea afford to let Kante leave, even if Inter do cough up the reported fee of £80m?

It’s hardly news that 2019/20 was not a good season for Kante at Chelsea. The Frenchman, who had averaged 47 appearances per season in his first three years at Stamford Bridge, played just 28 games in all competitions, 25 of which were starts.

N'Golo Kante's Football Index value has been hampered by his season

N’Golo Kante’s Football Index value has declined this season

The Frenchman went into the season nursing an injury problem that had hampered him towards the end of the 2018/19 campaign but, perhaps unwisely, he played through the pain to put on a world-class performance in the Europa League final against Arsenal.

His return would only last two-and-a-bit matches as, in a sign of what was to come for the Frenchman in 2019/20, Kante next suffered a sprained ankle. In total, Kante missed 21 games through injury across all competitions, the most frequent culprit being his hamstring; it was that particular problem that kept him out of the final five games of the Premier League season after having initially won back his place.

At 29, and with Kante hampered like never before in England fitness-wise, the rumour is that Chelsea are looking to cash in on one of the top midfielders in the league while his stock is still so high. This line of reasoning has only been fuelled by the Blues’ pursuit of West Ham United midfielder Declan Rice, and you could credibly argue swapping the younger Englishman for Kante seems good business.

However, Kante is still Kante. Even when playing with one leg, the Frenchman remains one of the best defensive-minded midfielders in the world, not a defensive midfielder (as that isn’t his role) but someone whose main focus is to shield the backline. Since the Frenchman arrived at Stamford Bridge, he has made more tackles than any other Chelsea player, 358 in total (three more than closest rival Cesar Azpilicueta, who has played almost 2,500 more minutes). Kante is also top for interceptions on 255, again followed by Azpilicueta, albeit with a slightly larger gap of 20.

Kante’s average defensive stats over the 2019/20 season

Just look at Chelsea’s performance in their 4-1 defeat to Bayern Munich in their Champions League last-16 second leg. The midfield was largely overrun, but not because of Kante. It was actually Kante single-handedly trying to keep the shape as his midfield teammates frequently drifted out of position.

And Lampard appears to agree that Chelsea looks a more secure side with Kante. Even when Jorginho returned from suspension in June, Lampard continued to play Kante in the holding role and only made the switch due to injury.

To allow all their attacking talent to shine, Chelsea will need someone like Kante to stop counter-attacks. For all his ability on the ball, Jorginho just doesn’t have the same athleticism and ball-winning nous of Kante.

Lampard has also handed Kante the captain’s armband on two occasions recently, first against Bayern Munich in the Champions League and then in a pre-season friendly against Brighton. Are those the acts of a manager who sees Kante as a replaceable asset?