Despite all of his success, N’Golo Kante is still compared to ex-Chelsea midfielder and footballing legend Claude Makelele. To be compared to a player that had a position named after him, considering Kante himself only started playing top division football in 2015 at 24-years-old, is rather impressive.
But Kante is even greater than Makelele, and it has been his ability to shift from an excellent defensive midfielder to the best ball progressing defensive midfielder in the world that has done this.
N’Golo Kante: The Best Defensive Progressive Midfielder
What is a Defensive Progressive Midfielder?
A ball progressing defensive midfielder is one who can not only break up the play and play a simple pass to the attackers, but a midfielder who combines the roles of a central defensive midfielder with the role of a traditional central midfielder. If we are to look at young Barcelona star Frenkie De Jong, we see a progressive midfielder, one who picks up the ball and drives at the opposition before offloading to attackers (averaging 1.6 dribbles per game in the 2020/21 La Liga Season). On the other hand, when you look at someone like Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester City, we see an all-out defensive midfielder who wants to win the ball back (96 tackles in the 2020/21 Premier League Season).
N’Golo Kante, however, has recently developed the ability to do both. In the 2020/21 Champions League, Kante managed an unbelievable average of 1.8 dribbles per game, and in the Premier League, where he only started 24 games, achieved 79 tackles, more than any other Chelsea player.
How He Developed This
There were a few years where the world had to watch Kante struggle in order to eventually reach these heights. And it was the heavy-smoking, former banker and current Lazio manager Maurizio Sarri who began to nurture this ability in Kante to not just do the defensive work we knew he could do (175 tackles in the 2015/16 season), but also drive with the ball and create chances in the attacking third.
Fans relentlessly called for Sarri’s head as he continued to put Kante in the number eight position and placed his trust in Jorginho in the defensive midfield position.
Sarri wanted him at number eight for two reasons: to allow Jorginho to play in the Regista role, and to try and win the ball higher up the pitch to enable fast attacks.
Sarri rarely saw the benefits of Kante’s aggressive positioning as he lacked the ability to play the final pass, and only scored one Premier League goal all season. But there was one game where you saw the potential that Kante could have if he was given this freedom to be aggressive in a system that entirely suited him.
The 2018/19 home game against Fulham wasn’t a routine win for Chelsea, but a 2-0 win is a very comfortable score-line. Although the second goal was a beautiful move finished off by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, it is the first goal that is of more interest here.
Kante, in his more attacking position, latched onto a poor touch by Jean-Michael Seri and drove with the ball, holding off the pressure that the Fulham man was trying to put on him. A gentle through ball to Pedro followed and the Spaniard buried the opportunity. It was a glimpse of something that we never really saw again in the whole season under Sarri, and in Lampard’s season and a half at the club either (the only one of note being his thunderous strike against Liverpool at home in the 2019/20 season).
Tuchel Had Other Ideas
Thomas Tuchel had always loved N’Golo Kante. When he joined the club in January, he told the media that he ‘wanted Kante in my team for many years’.
But the Frenchman hadn’t been in good form so far in the season. Injuries had meant that his game time under Lampard was limited and he was even injured when Tuchel initially joined the club.
As Kante regained fitness, Tuchel was ready to implement a plan that it seemed like he had wanted to use since he first became a manager, to deploy Kante in a double-six. It was a perfect fit.
In a 3-4-2-1 formation, the two central midfielders have an incredibly hard job. They must not only defend, but they must also be able to break the opposition’s midfield line and attack the other team’s defence. Whilst this was something that people thought Mateo Kovacic would thrive in (and they were right), people also thought that Kante would work as the defensive-minded player of the midfield central two and be back in his supposed happier position.
They were wrong.
The best example of this was Kante’s role in the commanding display against Real Madrid in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final.
Alongside Jorginho in the centre of midfield, Kante is the one who was given the job of running up and down the pitch, leaving Jorginho in a role that is much nearer to his role as Regista in the Italy team.
Kante was not only brilliant defensively, with him and Jorginho achieving 11 interceptions as a duo, more than Real Madrid’s whole team could manage altogether, but was in brilliant form going forwards.
He created the most chances in the match with three and should have scored one himself – perhaps the one place in which he still needs to work on.
Most pivotal, however, was his assistance in both goals on the night.
The first showed his ability to drive at opponents. Picking up the ball with his back to goal, he turned and played a lovely one-two with Timo Werner, before feeding Kai Havertz with another well-timed pass. Havertz’ delicate chip hit the bar, but Werner was on hand to get the opening goal.
The second was something that was started by Sarri and utilised to its fullest by Tuchel.
As a long ball was cleared by Sergio Ramos, Kante was the first to react, nipping in front of Nacho before charging at the Real Madrid backline. Yet another through ball fed Christian Pulisic this time, who in turn fed Mason Mount to give Chelsea the cushion they needed.
The Best in the World
Kante’s influence on the game was massive, and it was his this desire to be progressive and press higher up the pitch that turned Chelsea into European Champions. There is no midfielder in the world as good as the Frenchman at the moment; he is the only one that can do it all. If Chelsea need him to be defensive, as they did in the final against Manchester City, he can do it. But that was always a given with Kante.
What has changed is that his ability on the ball now is ten times better than it has ever been, and his confidence to drive at opponents and pick the right pass has transformed him into a midfielder who can do it all. If he continues this form into next year, Chelsea may be impossible to beat.