With Chelsea ten points clear at the top of the Premier League and not looking like letting up despite a challenging start to the season, it seems as though Antonio Conte is steering the Blues safely toward his first league crown in England. However, one player in the ranks at Stamford Bridge that has been the subject of much discussion is Chelsea’s defensive midfield man, N’Golo Kanté.
The Frenchman, who sealed a £30million move from last season’s champions Leicester City, is finding himself at the top of the Premier League tree again for a second successive year and is closing in on a Premier League record: that of being the first player to win consecutive titles with two different clubs. It is a feat that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the football world, and it begs the question as to whether or not Kanté, who also broke into the French national team for the first time last season, is the most important player in the Premier League.
In his 63 Premier League appearances for both clubs, the former Caen midfielder has been on the winning side on 43 occasions, a 68.25% winning ratio, the best of any current Premier League player. Adding to that the fact that for both clubs, Kanté has only been on the losing side in the league on six occasions, clearly, we have a player who doesn’t make a habit of coming second. Despite only netting two goals for both clubs – once for each thus far – with Watford and Manchester United the ungrateful opponents, Kanté has taken many plaudits for his tireless performances in midfield.
The defensive side of his game, which first came to our attention at Leicester, seems very much to have continued at Stamford Bridge, where he has continued to develop his growing reputation as a midfield engine, although interestingly, according to the statistics, Kanté hasn’t had to do so much defensive work since making the move to West London.
Throughout his 37 Premier League appearances for Leicester, the Frenchman put in a total of 175 tackles, 71% of which were successful, three blocks, 156 interceptions, 57 clearances, 27 headed clearances, and 326 recoveries. Compare that to the 94 tackles (67% of which were successful), eight blocks, 59 interceptions, 29 clearances, 11 headed clearances and 208 recoveries, and we can see that although the midfielder is still being kept rather busy, he isn’t having to put in anywhere near as much work. That may be in part, however, thanks to the extra cover of Nemanja Matic alongside him in midfield, and the added protection wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso offer the back three in Antonio Conte’s team. It is also an indication, though, of the freedom that Chelsea’s possession-based style of play has allowed him.
That extra cover in midfield and out wide first and foremost is probably the reason as to why the Frenchman has also been involved in far fewer duels on the pitch this term too. At Leicester, he won a total of 277 duels, losing 217, winning 47 of his 50/50 challenges. At Chelsea, he has been far less involved, with 151 duels won, 138 lost and a mere 27 successful 50/50s.
For a player who is still earning rave reviews for his midfield performances, and has often been a mainstay in Garth Crooks’ Team of the Week on BBC Sport, these statistics may seem surprising. However, the answer as to why Kanté is doing less of the dirty work lies elsewhere in his overall statistics.
Throughout his Leicester career in the Premier League, Kanté made a total of 1449 passes in his 37 league appearances, an average of 39.16 passes per game. The Frenchman also managed to rack up four assists for the Foxes, creating four key chances across the season, whilst putting in a total of 17 crosses, seven through-balls and 63 accurate long balls.
When looking into the same statistics for Chelsea, the results tell some story. In 26 Chelsea appearances, Kanté has already surpassed his total of passes throughout his Leicester career, with 1602, an average of 61.62 per game currently, with three through-balls, 107 accurate long balls and six crosses. Despite registering no assists thus far, putting fewer balls in from out wide and only having created one key chance throughout 2016/17, it is clear that Kanté’s role within the Chelsea side differs from the one he played out at Leicester.
At the King Power, it is clear Kanté was more involved across the board. He not only did the majority of defensive work in midfield to allow playmaker Danny Drinkwater the freedom to roam forward, but he was also expected to contribute to the attacking cause as well, and as his Leicester statistics suggest, he did so. At Chelsea, a side who play a far more expansive, possession-minded game, Kanté appears to have become more of a pass-minded player under Antonio Conte’s tutelage and has clearly enjoyed more free-rein playing this way.
The statistics do suggest that the Frenchman gets involved defensively when necessary, but he has been far less involved directly in the attack, but more involved in playing the ball, something which is to be expected with Conte’s defensive style. With two wing-backs who make the most effort to get forward in support of the front three, Kanté clearly has far less to do in terms of getting forward, which may explain why he is less involved in getting balls into the box from out wide this term.
Though where he has been less involved with Chelsea compared to his time at Leicester in going forward, the difference in Chelsea’s playing style has allowed him to become more involved elsewhere. He has netted a mere one goal for each club, but throughout his stint at the King Power, Kanté only registered 24 shots on goal, with six of those finding the target, an overall shot accuracy of 24%. All this came within 37 Leicester appearances. At Chelsea, where he has thus far appeared 26 times in the league, Kanté has exceeded his Leicester total already, with 24 shots, six of which have been on target, tallying up to a 25% shooting accuracy. He has also spurned one major goal-scoring chance this term, whereas he didn’t enjoy any major opportunities with Leicester other than the goal he scored against Watford.
With the passing and attacking statistics in mind, it is not only clear the Conte has moulded the midfielder into a player more suited to slot into a more dynamic, passing style in playing the ball out from the back, but it is also clear that the majority of Kanté’s duties are in the centre of the park. The presence of the marauding wing-backs means there is less need for Kanté to drift out wide, and the ability to remain central and push up to support the attack may well explain why he has seen slightly more action thus far in front of goal, despite not being directly responsible for creating anything as of yet. Given Conte’s emphasis on defence though, this may be down to the player sitting further back in front of the defence, rather than pressing and closing down the ball constantly as he did so often under Ranieri, even if that meant vacating his position just in front of the defence.
The weaknesses in Kanté’s game do seem to have remained consistent, however. Thanks to his limited height, aerial battles are obviously not the midfielder’s specialty. At Leicester, Kanté was involved in 95 aerial duels, winning 38 and losing 57. At Chelsea, given the presence of Nemanja Matic alongside him, Kanté has been involved in far less aerial battles, with a total of 54, but the losses still outweigh the victories, having lost 35 compared to the 19 he has succeeded in during his time at the Bridge. Despite this, throughout his time at both clubs, Kanté has remarkably never committed an error that has directly led to a goal for the opposition.
Kanté’s lesser involvement in defensive work at Chelsea, however, does seem to have had a slight impact on his overall disciplinary record. Kanté is yet to see red in the Premier League, but at Chelsea, he has received six yellow cards in 2016/17, double the total he registered at Leicester. With the Foxes, he also committed a season total of 43 fouls. This term, he has already reached 40, having played 11 games less.
This, however, can be expected given the player has been involved in far less of the so-called ‘dirty work’ this term. The statistics seem to suggest that under Claudio Ranieri’s style at Leicester, Kanté’s role was far greater and required a great deal more effort, whereas at Chelsea, a team that tend to monopolise possession and concentrate more on defending, the midfielder has become more involved in retaining possession, rather than having to continually press and win back the ball.
The defensive side of his game of course remains, but other aspects of his game have been able to develop and flourish under Antonio Conte and rather than re-enacting the role of a midfielder who is pure work-rate and pure-engine, the Italian’s style looks to be modifying the hard-working Frenchman into more of an all-round midfield-man. Within a squad such as Chelsea’s, where emphasis is put on defence, playing the ball from the back and enjoying the lion’s share of possession, it was almost inevitable that Kanté would be required to do far less defensively, but he has still shown that when necessary, he is ready to help break-up play, and has more free licence to remain central and support the attack that way, rather than drifting out wide as he did more often for his previous employers.
The statistics, therefore, shouldn’t be taken as a sign of regression, but rather of Kanté’s versatility. He has been able to bring the benefits of his work-rate and his defensive-minded game to the table for Chelsea, as well as growing into a composed midfield player who is comfortable on the ball and playing the ball around, as well as just breaking-up play. For the lesser work he has been required to do defensively, he has been able to offer more in playing the ball and getting the ball forward, which have enabled the vast audiences of the Premier League to enjoy some of the different aspects of his game. He is clearly doing something right given where Chelsea are, and indeed after what he accomplished last season and if he does go on to become the first man to win back-to-back titles with different clues, nobody could begrudge him of it. Is he the most important Premier League player? Debatable, but there is certainly a case for it.
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