Football Features

Is N’Golo Kante no longer irreplaceable at Chelsea?

By Harry Edwards

Published: 18:48, 23 October 2020

Just a few years ago N’Golo Kante was hailed as one of the best defensive-minded midfielders in the world, winning back-to-back Premier League titles with Leicester City and Chelsea. But can this still be said of him?

After the arrival of Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea in 2018, Kante’s role changed from playing in a midfield pivot to being part of a trio, something Frank Lampard kept up in his first season at Stamford Bridge.

This season, Lampard has favoured a 4-2-3-1, and Kante has started all of Chelsea’s Premier League and Champions League games so far as one of the two deeper midfielders.

Yet, rather than strengthening the defence and his place in the team, Kante’s performances have led some to ask whether he should in fact be starting for Chelsea.

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What Kante brings to the Chelsea team

There is no denying Kante is the best defensive midfielder in Chelsea’s squad, even if he isn’t your typical defensive midfielder anymore.

N’Golo Kante’s heatmap in the Premier League and Champions League in 2020/21

Although often playing deeper, the Frenchman is all over the pitch for Chelsea looking to put out fires long before they reach the backline. Once the Premier League’s top tackler, Kante’s role change has seen him adapt his skillset slightly. Nowadays, he aims to stop attacks by using his reading of the game. Kante currently leads the Premier League for interceptions, making 17, at an average of 3.45 per 90 minutes.

That doesn’t mean Kante is no longer harrying opponents. He is still Chelsea’s top man for tackles, with 13 in the Premier League so far, though the load is often shared with Jorginho, who has made 10.

The Kante-Jorginho partnership has been Lampard’s favoured midfield duo this season, with the pair starting together in four games across all competitions so far providing a decent mixture of passing and defending.

Against Sevilla in midweek, the duo worked excellently together as they were disciplined in sitting in front of their defence to provide a security that has been missing from Chelsea under Lampard.

Should Kante be starting?

But Kante does have his limitations in a midfield two, particularly with the way he plays in Lampard’s set-up. Because of how much he moves around the pitch, Kante often leaves Chelsea open at the back. And while the Kante of old may have been able to cover the ground quickly to catch up, this is a new iteration of the 2018 World Cup winner, one that has been suffering from injuries.

The Frenchman isn’t as invincible as he used to be and has slowed down slightly, which means his forays forward heaps too much pressure on Jorginho and Chelsea’s weaker defenders. Although that may say more about Jorginho’s defensive weaknesses, the Italian international has improved and his passing ability means he is a must.

With Jorginho sitting, his partner has to be the one running forward with the ball and joining in the attack. And while this is something Kante finds himself doing when high up the pitch, it has been more to Chelsea’s detriment than their benefit.

N’Golo Kante’s Football Index value has fluctuated over the past three months

That’s because Kante isn’t an attacking midfielder. In Sarri’s midfield three, Kante frequently found himself in attacking situations but wasted opportunities, whether due to poor finishing or hesitation.

The latter has been Kante’s biggest limitation in attack under Lampard, particularly when behaving as the ‘attacker’ in a midfield duo. Already this season, there have been a number of instances in which Kante has stopped a Chelsea attack in its tracks because of a poor decision. More often than not this takes the form of lingering too long on the ball, causing Kante to either miss an excellent run from a teammate or allow opposition defenders to get back into position.

This is where Kovacic has the upper hand, but the Croatian is yet to partner Jorginho. Instead, he gets his starts alongside Kante or as part of a trio. Comparing Kante this season to Kovacic last season, when the former Real Madrid midfielder was playing alongside Jorginho in the Frenchman’s absence, there is a difference.

Although Kovacic cannot match Kante in interceptions, because that isn’t his style, the Croatian just has the edge averaging 2.74 tackles per 90 minutes compared to Kante’s 2.64 this season. Kovacic is also, naturally, the better attacker averaging 10.33 passes into the final third per 90 to Kante’s 3.86.

This can be explained by the fact they are different players, maybe even given different instructions, and shouldn’t be taken as a slight on Kante. But Lampard’s current system needs someone like Kovacic who can frequently add to the attack and link up with the stars ahead of them.

For now, Kante has been getting the starts, but it may not be too long before Lampard has a big decision to make regarding the Frenchman and his place in the starting XI.