The France international is being challenged to go from a super-effective specialist to an all-round player who is capable of doing anything
There is a joke that has been doing the rounds in England for some time now, in which it’s claimed that while water covers 70 percent of Earth, N’Golo Kante covers the rest.
The dynamic defensive midfielder’s response was typically humble. “It’s just football, my friends,” he wrote on Twitter . “There are more important things than covering the earth.”
Nevertheless, for Claudio Ranieri, Antonio Conte and Didier Deschamps, there were few more important players than the diminutive Frenchman in terms of their respective trophy triumphs in recent years.
Kante never seeks out the limelight but his success over the past three seasons – two Premier League titles and a World Cup – speak volumes about his status as the world’s best defensive midfielder.
A tenacious, intelligent and technically gifted player, he has proven himself as adept at winning the ball as distributing it.
However, the arrival of Maurizio Sarri as Chelsea boss represents a significant shift in Kante’s responsibilities, as he is now being asked to operate more in the final third; essentially, to also score goals and provide assists
A player renowned as a destroyer must now become a creator. And a finisher!
Kante’s scuffed strike in Chelsea’s win at Huddersfield just under a fortnight ago was his first Premier League goal since September 2017. It was such a surprise for Chelsea fans to see their No.7 hit the back of the net that they feared he might not remember how to celebrate!
Chelsea’s players, meanwhile, rushed to congratulate their beloved team-mate. Chief among them was new signing Jorginho, the £57 million man from Napoli who has essentially taken Kante’s deep-lying role away from him.
The Brazil-born Italy international is now operating at the base of the Blues midfield as his knowledge of Sarri’s methods from their time together at the Stadio San Paolo is pivotal to the team’s chances of quickly adapting to the demands of their new boss.
Chelsea have only played two games so far but there has already been a notable transformation in their game, and indeed Kante’s.
The World Cup-winner has already had four attempts on goal, whereas last season his average was 0.8 shots per game. The season before that it was only 0.7.
He is creating two chances per league game too, up from 0.6 during the title-winning season of two years ago.
Surprisingly, he is attempting fewer dribbles but that is probably due to an increased requirement to focus on his off-the-ball movement in order to receive the ball higher up the pitch, with Jorginho now charged with carrying and moving the ball in the middle of the park.
He is now tackling, recovering and intercepting the ball less in the league too, which only serves to underline just how dramatically his role is changing under Sarri.
But can the man affectionately nicknamed ‘NG’ in the dressing room really become Chelsea’s answer to new Liverpool No.8, Naby Keita?
Jermaine Jenas has watched Kante closely in the first two games of the new Premier League season and the former England international points out that the 27-year-old has already proven himself one of the most versatile and tactically intelligent players in the world.
“If you think about Kante when he came to England, he played at Leicester in a 4-4-2 and he adapted to 4-4-2,” BT Sport pundit Jenas told Goal . “We were all kind of shocked that this team could not only play 4-4-2 but be successful doing it as well.
“Everyone thought 4-4-2 was a dead formation and he was brilliant at making it work. Then he goes to Chelsea, he starts in a midfield two and with five at the back.
“So, he adapts to whatever situation he gets put into. He is smarter, as a footballer, than people give him credit for.
“Because he is dynamic on the pitch and wins the ball back, people say, ‘I would hate to play against Kante’ and that he is this, that and the other. But I think they underestimate just how clever he is.
“He plays little one-twos around people and he can dribble by you. Don’t get me wrong, though, I think in that final third, the composure is nowhere near the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Pedro or Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but he offers you so much up until that point.
“That’s why I say he won’t get 10 goals a season, but he can provide a few and with the amount of running he does, he can go box-to-box just as he did in 4-4-2. I see him adapting to it and making it work.
“I have seen him play both weeks and I never thought, ‘Oh god, you are struggling!’ He looked just as good as, if not more accomplished than Ross Barkley on the other side, and Barkley has been playing in that position for years!”
Of course, we shouldn’t be at all surprised by Kante’s remarkable powers of adaptation.
As recently as four years ago, the highest level he had played was Ligue 2 in France. Since then, he has gone on to play in Ligue 1, win back-to-back Premier League titles with two different clubs, and lift the World Cup with France.
He has made it look easy, despite all of the hardship he has suffered along the way, even losing one of his eight brothers to heart problems ahead of Russia 2018.
After deciding to participate, he was ultimately deemed so indispensable by Deschamps that the Bleus boss asked him to play in the final against Croatia even though he was suffering with gastroenteritis.
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Kante is likely to become just as integral to Sarri’s side. The competition for starting berths at Stamford Bridge this season will be intense, with Kante, Jorginho, Fabregas, Barkley, Mateo Kovacic, Danny Drinkwater and Loftus-Cheek all vying for positions.
A new manager always represents a challenge to all players and Kante needs to improve in certain areas to excel in his new role. However, as Jenas points out, he is more than capable of doing just that.
Kante has never been just a ball-winner anyway. But now he has the opportunity to show the world that he can become the complete midfielder.