Caen to Chelsea: Setting the record straight on N’Golo Kante’s offense

N’Golo Kante played a slightly different role for Chelsea last season, but it was by no means a new one. Kante’s contributions on offense go back to his earliest days on anyone’s radar in France.

The question was never if N’Golo Kante could play one function in midfield or another. It was only ever determining what was the best position for him to play given Chelsea’s needs, ambitions and style of play. Assessing Kante’s suitability for a more advanced, box-to-box role as he played under Maurizio Sarri and now Frank Lampard is an even more banal exercise than simply recognizing his broad and prodigious talents. You simply just have to look at the man’s career.

We chose three stats to look at from Kante’s last five seasons, spanning Caen, Leicester City and Chelsea: shots, dribbles and key passes.

Why those? First, they are all easily accessible on WhoScored. Second, they cover the three distinct, measurable aspects of an individual’s offensive game: shooting, dribbling and passing. Third, the first two reflect intent – when a player shoots or dribbles, it’s because that’s what he set out to do (Davide Zappacosta and Daniel Wass, notwithstanding); and key passes considers the offensive consequence: do his actions produce a desirable offensive output. Finally, unlike goals or assists, enough of these happen in a season to show trends and variations.

N’Golo Kante led Caen with 56 dribbles in 2014/15. He had 47 dribbles in two of the next three seasons, good for third-most on the team both times: behind Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton at Leicester City in 2015/16, and behind Eden Hazard and Willian at Chelsea in 2017/18. He had the sixth-most dribbles in his other two seasons at Chelsea: 36 in 2016/17, and 32 in 2018/19.

Interestingly, Chelsea’s overall possession was six percentage points higher last season than in 2016/17. Kante had fewer dribbles under Maurizio Sarri despite playing a nominally more advanced role and in a system where Chelsea had more of the ball.

Kante had his career-high season in key passes last season: 46, one more than he had for Caen in 2014/15 and five more than his 41 in 2017/18. He was third among the Blues for key passes last season, fourth the season before and second in 2014/15 for Caen.

Similarly, Kante had his second-highest shot total last season. His 29 under Maurizio Sarri significantly lagged his 35 at Caen, but was only marginally more than his 27 and 25 shots in two seasons under Antonio Conte.

Kante’s consistency in each stat is remarkable in both absolute and relative terms. In four of his five seasons, his key passes ranged from 47-56. Last season was the outlier, but even then he held the same spot in the team rankings as two seasons earlier (sixth). He was no worse than third in the other seasons.

Three of his five seasons saw him make between 41-46 key passes. In the other two, he won the Premier League title. When he had over 40 key passes he was second, third or fourth on the team in that stat. He was sixth and 10th in those other, title-winning seasons.

Finally, Kante had four seasons with 21-29 shots: good for 8th-11th on the team. His one outlier season of 35 shots took him up to sixth on the team ranking.

Perhaps what most gives the lie to the whole narrative about N’Golo Kante’s offensive development last season is looking at these three stats per share of possession.

Kante had a career-high number of key passes last season. But per share of possession, it was only marginally better than 2017/18 and well below his 2014/15 season at Caen. His dribbling output dropped steadily from 2014/15-2017/18, and then plummeted last season when you consider Chelsea had 59% of the ball, whereas the other seasons ranged from 46-54%. His shots per share of possession were once again remarkably steady across his four seasons in England, so last season was his second-highest in the Premier League but by a very slim margin.

While these findings may be a surprise to people who are new to Chelsea, N’Golo Kante or football as a whole, they would not be to Kante’s earliest teammates as J.S. Suresnes.

At home, the pass was innate. We were the ones who often pushed him to go on his own, especially when he came in as a senior where you want to win games. He was told to take the ball and go alone. – Francois Lemoine, (translated)

What Kante’s teammate Lemoine saw in their teen years has become visible in the three teams in two top five leagues, and the France national team, in which the world has started to notice – perhaps retrospectively – N’Golo Kante.

N’Golo Kante has improved and grown his game since those teen years, obviously, but last season represented no great leap in the quality or breadth of his football. At best, it was quite ordinary. At worst, it showed how much he was constrained, not liberated, by Maurizio Sarri’s methods.

Next: Tactics and Transfers: In defense of "Total" defending

The roots of N’Golo Kante’s offensive prowess have been there for all to see for most of the last decade. Or, for those of us who only learned of him en route to his first Premier League title, through the data he left behind and the football he shows every day.

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