N’golo Kante’s remarkable rise to the pinnacle of football over the past 3 years has been well documented but a shift in playing position has seen his abilities called into question. The little likeable Frenchman has broken barriers and skipped past hurdles on his way to his 2 premier league titles, an FA cup, the 2018 world cup and a place on the prestigious world XI. The Frenchman is known for his tireless work rate that sees him shutting down opposition attacks, shuttling up and down the field doing the “dirty work”. One thing people often get wrong in their assessment of Kante is the assumption that he is a traditional defensive midfielder. While his primary job is disruption of opposition attacks and ball recovery, pinning him as a defensive midfielder would be limiting his game and tireless work rate. Questions about his positioning a bit further forward are being asked and we address the issue tactically.
Under Ranieri, Kante was employed in the classic 442 formation with Kante and Danny Drrinkwater in the centre. There was no defined ‘holding midfielder’ as both men sat deep and worked to win back possession and both took turns to join the attack depending on whose side the action was closer to and whoever was further away from the action stayed behind to maintain shape and defensive solidity. The most defining quality about Ranieri’s title winning Leicester was the simplicity of their tactics and it’s execution. Danny Drrinkwater was the more competent of the duo going forward but Kante being the indefatigable being he is had his fair share of forays further forward. In Kante’s first season at Chelsea, most notably after the switch to the revolutionary 343 formation, he and Nemanja Matic were the 2 in the middle as they went on to secure the title. Both men again took turns to go forward with Kante’s pace allowing him to push forward and transition back seamlessly to defensive phase of the game. On paper both men are seen as holding midfielders but in the actual play none could be pegged as the true holding midfielder. A much clearer example of this is Juventus’ use of Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic in the midfield two in the same 343 formation. Both men took turns pushing forward and this resulted in more goals for Khedira and more assists for Pjanic. Neither are pure holding midfielders but were able to shuttle between defence and attack with tactical acumen. The formation does not demand for a true holding midfielder but midfielders with enough tactical understanding to close opposition attacks when needed and also join. Worth noting is that in his youth days, Kante operated on the flanks so he does know how to get forward.
Now Maurizio Sarri has arrived with ‘sarrissmo’ and after one draw in 7 games fans are calling for Kante to be played in the holding midfield position at the base of midfield, similar to his position at the World Cup. This would mean a clash of interests with new signing Jorginho and Sarri just can’t let that happen. Jorginho operates as a classic regista and not a pure holding midfielder. Understanding this is pretty simple as rather than having your 10 behind your striker, you have him in the classic 4 position, conducting play from deep. The classic defensive midfield position requires strength and ball recovery but the regista works to conduct play. Now if the playmaker is already that deep then further forward has to be players capable of making up for the defensive frailties of the regista. An example of this was Carlo Ancelotti’s 4312 employed at AC Milan. Andrea Pirlo was the regista in the midfield three alongside Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, with Pirlo famed for his defensive shortcomings a certain Gattuso who on paper was a ‘defensive midfielder’, played a bit further forward but his job was to protect Pirlo in defense and provide an extra runner in attack. Pirlo might have been the brains of that Milan side but brains need hands and legs to carry out bodily functions and that’s what Gattuso provided. At Juventus, Pirlo continued in his regista role but this time he had Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba in rotation to be his “hands and legs”. Arturo Vidal would go on to become one of the best two way midfielders in the game becoming as effective in attack as defense.
At Napoli Sarri had Allan, at Juventus Antonio Conte had Arturo Vidal and at AC Milan Carlo Ancelotti had Gattuso and now at Chelsea Sarri has N’golo Kante. There have been calls for Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus Cheek to be employed where Kante is being played but that will disrupt the balance as none possess the engine to do what Kante does. The aforementioned teams were all successful in their own rights as the shuttlers provided the midfield balance required to make the regista role work. Fickle fans getting worked up over Sarri’s use of Kante need to calm down and let the players get acclimatized to the relatively new system and it’s workings. Kante has been getting into the right positions attacking wise and with a little more finishing practice will do better in front of goal (he already has a goal and is racking up key stats) while also maintaining his defensive excellence. Many footballers have undergone positional changes and still their quality shone through. Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Gareth Bale, Mousse Dembele (Tottenham) etc still remain forces to be reckoned with despite positional changes and Kante should be able to shoulder a little more attacking responsibility and it is worth noting that Kante himself acknowledged that he is enjoying his new position.