N’Golo Kante will be as important to Maurizio Sarri as he has been for every other coach he has had. Chelsea’s new tactics could scarcely suit him better.
Few things brought more joy than seeing N’golo Kante score Chelsea’s opening goal of the Premier League season. Goals by the diminutive Frenchman are few and far between, so each one should be savored and celebrated as unique miracles. Kante is expected to do a lot of things on the field, but scoring certainly isn’t one of them.
While his goal against Huddersfield was delightful, the bullet header he missed against Arsenal was a reminder that the Maurizio Sarri-fied version of N’golo Kante is a work in progress.
There’s been a swell of concern about Kante’s role under Sarri. Starting alongside Ross Barkley, he has been one of the two central midfielders positioned in front of Jorginho, who serves as the deep-lying playmaker stationed in front of the back four.
In his seasons under Antonio Conte and under Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City before that, Kante was always the man right in front of the backline, sweeping up messes and harrying anyone who even considered bringing the ball into the final third. In France’s World Cup run, he played as the defensive cover for Paul Pogba in the double pivot of Didier Deschamps’ 4-2-3-1.
However, through two competitive matches under Sarri, it seems the defense-first heat-seeking missile that was the old N’golo Kante might be a thing of the past. Suddenly, Kante is finding the midfield line to be behind hin more often than in front of him. He’s pushing the ball forward rather than just making the safe pass to a more attacking player near him. Heck, he’s making runs into the box to get on the end of crosses!
It’s a brave new world.
While the goal against Huddersfield showed the tantalizing potential of Kante 2.0, the final 15 minutes of the first half against Arsenal demonstrated the terrifying reality of a Kante-less Chelsea defense.
Before Henrik Mkhitaryan finally scored for Arsenal, he and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed point-blank chances. Eventually, Mkhitaryan scored off a deflected cross from the edge of the box. Then Alex Iwobi scored from almost the exact same spot where Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang missed. On Iwobi’s goal, Kante was present in the box. But he didn’t seem to know where or who he was supposed to be defending, while Iwobi ran right behind him onto Mkhitaryan’s cutback.
One assessment of Chelsea’s defensive Swiss-cheesiness against Arsenal blames Maurizio Sarri for playing N’golo Kante out of position. This theory says he and Jorginho should switch spots. However, that is both a misdiagnosis and an incorrect prescription.
But the simplest explanation behind the goals conceded is that Chelsea are not used to playing with a flat back four. Most of Arsenal’s chances came from balls played in behind the fullbacks, followed by a cutback towards the penalty spot.
In Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3, the third centerback would be the one intercepting those cutbacks, while the other two centerbacks could pressure the players bringing the ball into the box from the wings. It’s part of the reason the Italian catennacio system is so defensively stout. Unless Sarri is going to plant Kante firmly between the centerbacks, switching him and Jorginho isn’t going to make much of a difference.
Instead, Sarri’s quotes after the match shed some light on what the future might hold for N’golo Kante and Chelsea’s defensive strategy.
Asked to evaluate the match Sarri said:
I think we have done very well for 75 minutes. Fifteen minutes at the end of the first half was horrible. We lost distances, I think. We are not able to recover the lost ball, or press in the other half as a team. Only one player, two players, and the others too far [away]. – Chelsea FC
The compactness of Sarri’s press is an interesting concept. The first half against Arsenal proved its importance. For Pedro’s goal, Chelsea won the ball with almost every outfield player in the middle third of the pitch. On Morata’s, everyone is packed between the midfield line and about 15 yards in front of the penalty box when Cesar Azpilicueta plays the ball over the top behind the defense.
Sarri’s system calls for extremely technical and intelligent play in tight spaces, both in attack and defense. If opponents are able to expand the game across the field, Chelsea become far more fragile on defense. On Arsenal’s goals (and the gazillion other great chances they flubbed), Chelsea are stretched both horizontally and vertically, leading to individual players pressing the ball at the wrong times with no close support.
The good news is Chelsea looked much better in the second half, partly due to Arsenal seemingly happy to play for a draw. Staying mentally engaged on defense for the entire match will take some time, but the results it can provide are clearly worth the challenging learning curve.
What makes all of this even more fascinating is N’Golo Kante’s role in this aggressive and tight press. While Chelsea will attempt to strangle their opposition into submission as a team, Kante provides a quick-strike ability to pinch the ball off an opponent who holds onto into for a split second too long. The more Chelsea’s press can confound opponents into taking an extra beat on the ball, the more Kante will be able to go in for the kill and start breakaways similar to the ones leading to Pedro and Morata’s goals.
Of course, this is all part of the much larger project that is the Sarri-fication of Chelsea. Bu his own admission that could take months to reach its full effect. Chelsea arguably have bought into Sarri’s system quicker than even he may have expected, but there’s still a bit of a Bambi-on-ice vibe to the team that will hopefully go away with more repetitions both on the training ground and in actual matches.
As for N’golo Kante, it looks like one of the world’s most unique and impressive players is going to become even more unique in this new system. If Chelsea is lucky, he’ll also be more impressive.