Could Didier N'Dong be Sunderland's answer to N'Golo Kante?
For many years the role of defensive midfielder was wildly underrated in football. Often unglamorous, with the best players seemingly anonymous, the only name who was ever really considered a star performing this thankless role was Claude Makelele, the name behind the eponymous role who performed it so excellently during the late 90s and early 2000s.
However, one man has seemingly changed the way defensive midfielders are viewed – N’Golo Kante. Signed by Leicester for little to no reception, the diminutive Frenchman played a starring role in the club’s surprising title win, winning swathes of tackles and interceptions that carried Leicester over the line.
A £30 million transfer to Chelsea followed, and suddenly, everyone wants to get in on the act and sign a player of the same ilk as Kante. Everton jumped on board by signing Idrissa Gana Gueye from Aston Villa, a man who rivalled Kante’s impressive statistics despite Aston Villa’s meek surrender to relegation. Leicester replaced their departing star with the frightfully similar Nampalys Mendy.
Sunderland have also now joined the party, too, spending £13.7 million on Lorient and Gabon’s Didier N’Dong in order to revitalise a squad that has been perpetually battling relegation for the last half a decade. But what sort of an impact will N’Dong have on the team?
Well on the whole, a positive one. N’Dong has been compared to Michael Essien, winning several tackles and interceptions every game for Lorient, but he is more than just a destructive force. The Gabonese midfielder also made an impressive 87% of passes last campaign, hitting over 50 passes per game. If he can reproduce this kind of form, he will be a massive upgrade on the likes of Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff in the same position, who lack the mobility and quality on the ball that N’Dong appears to possess.
These statistics will certainly aid Sunderland, and it could be the difference between a relegation battle and mid table, but it would be wrong to expect the arrival of N’Dong to suddenly catapult the Black Cats to anywhere near the level shown by Leicester last season.
N’Dong does have the capabilities to thrive in midfield, but the impact of a good defensive midfielder on a team’s fortunes depends massively on other strengths and weaknesses in the squad. Take the aforementioned Idrissa Gana Gueye as an example. Last season he was all over the pitch, making tackles and interceptions that should have galvanised his teammates into more than the paltry 17 points they mustered over the 38 game campaign.
But no. Villa went down in spite of Gueye’s excellence. Even Kante can’t always have that much of an effect on his team. The season before arriving at Leicester, Kante helped Caen to 13th place in Ligue 1. Last season, N’Dong’s Lorient finished 15th. These players can be difference makers, as Kante was for Leicester, but without providing goals or very much in an offensive sense, they will merely turn a poor team into average, or an average team into good. There are ten other players who must pull their weight on the pitch after all.
Having said that, Sunderland’s attempts to follow in Leicester’s trend and sign a combative interceptor in midfield is a very sensible decision. The extra protection provided by N’Dong will improve Sunderland’s defence, and with Jermain Defoe up front, should allow the team to steal more wins thanks to the predatory instincts of the striker. N’Dong will help this massively, and if he plays as well as his form and potential says he will, the 22-year-old could be the difference between a relegation battle and comfortable survival. This could be a great move by David Moyes.