Kante N’golo Distance?

Over the past 20 months or so, N’golo Kante has received praise in abundance, culminating when he won the 2017 PFA Fans’ Premier League Player of the Month award. There is no doubt that his consistency and tenacious performances played an integral part in Chelsea’s title win. He is a fully-fledged destroyer. I find it difficult to draw comparisons. Just looking at Chelsea’s lineage in this position and comparing him to Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel or Claude Makélélé (to name a few), Kante offers a unique engine that is unrivalled. His slight physique enables him to nip into tackles and dispossesses the ball before the defender has had a chance to react. This ability is something you will have heard chimed countless times before, mainly sung by the British media.

What I propose is that his passing ability and vision, coupled with his attacking attributes will always stop Kante from being branded a ‘world class’ asset. More worryingly, I fear these flaws will hinder Chelsea’s efforts to win their second Champions League title in years to come.

When I watch Kante play, I see glaringly apparent flaws in his game ignored by large parts of the footballing community. I feel his defensive skill set, alongside his charm that exudes whenever he makes a tackle or harry the defenders overshadow any criticism that may come his way.

I’m reluctant to base my argument purely on stats. I feel they are often used out of context and can misrepresent a player’s output. As I’m writing this, Kante and Fabregas’ passes are almost identical in the Premier League; 385 and 387 respectively. Kante’s pass success rate is slightly higher than Fabregas’s; 85% beats 84%. On the surface, there is no issue.

When I watch Kante on the ball, he is uncomfortable. He is slow, indecisive, and looks to play a long ball as a last resort. His hesitation on the ball slows Chelsea’s momentum down, allowing the defence time to set up and establish a stronger defensive structure. He relies on Fabregas to create width. Kante often seems incapable of spreading the ball wide. I get the sense that his technical skills haven’t developed fully throughout his career and sadly, it doesn’t look like they will ever be part of his arsenal.

The result – opposition can stand off Kante. They are not afraid of a long pass that will split the defence, or expect him to ghost pass them. He becomes a stagnant player in the midfield. When facing better teams, such as Man City and Arsenal this season, they can sit a lot deeper and mark Chelsea’s attackers a lot tighter. An established defensive line makes it more difficult for Chelsea to unlock their opponents’ defences.

Despite this, Chelsea has beaten Atletico Madrid, away this season; a tie that Kante played very well. While it was an excellent performance from Chelsea, Atleti is a reactive team. Their high tempo defensive suits Kante – it requires a more instinctive form of football. Atletico tends to press high and suffocate their opponents, which plays to Kante’s strengths. Kante seems to cope well with this style of football as Chelsea can use the short pass to move the ball past their opponents. Man City, on the other hand, sat tight and gave Kante time. When this is the case, he seems to struggle. There are fewer gaps in front of him – he is forced to carry the ball or pick out slightly longer passes. During the game, Chelsea created two chances against City, both crosses. While this doesn’t solely result from Kante’s flaws, he is unable to shift the tempo of the game, offensively.

Kante doesn’t have a quick trigger on the ball. During the game, Chelsea needed to get the ball out wide, at faster speeds. Delph was far too comfortable in the game (being played at Left Back). Kante does not have the range on his pass to make the defence feel at danger or uncomfortable. His passing ability and decision making are unbalanced, clearly favouring short passes.

With Fabregas looking a lot less sharp on the ball this season, particularly with his range of passing, this spells danger going forward. Azpilicueta has the most assists of any Chelsea player this season, which doesn’t come as a surprise. There is a distinct lack of creativity in Chelsea’s midfield.

This season will define Kante as a player. Assuming Chelsea will move past the group stages of the Champions League, we will see how he plays in the significant European ties. As a Chelsea fan, I hope I’m wrong about Kante – I’ll be more than happy to hold my hands up and admit that.

This topic will be something I expand on as the season progresses. The Manchester clubs are already looking like a stronger outfit this season. Coping with the pressures of the Premier League and the Champions League will be Kante’s biggest test. I look forward to seeing the results.