The Season Ticket
Football | N’Golo Kanté adapting to new role
One of Mauricio Sarri’s first moves as Chelsea manager was to sign Jorginho.
The Italian midfielder was crucial to Sarri’s preferred style of play at Napoli, acting as the team’s metronome, and orchestrating play from a deep-lying midfield position.
But the acquisition of Jorginho left Sarri with a decision to make at his new club.
What to do with N’Golo Kanté?
It seemed counter-intuitive to move the world’s best defensive midfielder out of his natural position.
After all, this is a player who won consecutive Premier League titles playing in that position.
Nevertheless, that is what Sarri has elected to do at Stamford Bridge.
Kanté is now reinventing himself as a box-to-box midfielder, and it appears as if the World Cup winner is beginning to thrive in his new role.
The Blues' first game of the season hinted at what was to come.
Kanté popped up with a rare goal, giving Chelsea the lead in their eventual 3-0 win over Huddersfield Town.
On Sunday, Chelsea beat Crystal Palace 1-0 to go five clear of fifth placed Arsenal in the Premier League.
It was Kanté who sealed all three points, scoring the only goal of the game in the 51st minute at Selhurst Park.
After early – and understandable – teething problems in the position, the industrious Frenchman has now managed three goals in his last 20 Premier League matches, compared to three in his previous 106 appearances.
His current tally of three goals is also now his personal best for an entire season.
He has averaged 1.91 touches in the opposition box per game in this campaign compared to 0.57 last season.
The goal against Palace illustrated how much his role has changed this season, and it was a fine goal to cap off a man of the match performance from the 27-year-old.
He made a surging off the ball run into the box that was more reminiscent of Lampard than Makélélé, and was picked out by a sublime lofted pass by David Luiz.
Kanté then controlled the ball on his chest before firing a low left footed volley past Wayne Hennessy.
Mauricio Sarri was also full of praise for the former Leicester midfielder, and suggested Ross Barkley could learn from the France international.
"I think that it was a very good movement and with the right timing,” he said.
“He [Kante] is so improving in this kind of movement.
"When the opponents defended with very low intensity, it is difficult for he striker and wingers to find the spaces so we have to arrive with a midfielder. I think now we have to work on Barkley for this movement."
Sarri deserves credit for his bold move and conviction to persist with the positional switch.
Unsurprisingly, Kanté has carried his tireless running, excellent ball recovery skills, and boundless energy into his new role, and is now improving his end product at the business end of the pitch.
The decision to change his role - which has always been so effective - has been the subject of intense speculation and criticism at times this season.
“Kante is a very average player in the position he is playing now – I just see a normal midfield player,” Jamie Carragher said on Monday Night Football in November.
Chelsea were torn apart against Spurs, and Jorginho’s failure to keep up with Heung-Min Son for the South Korean’s fine solo goal illustrated how the club can be exposed without Kanté at the base of their midfield.
"Kante is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, why take him out of his position?" Steve Sidwell asked earlier this month.
The former Chelsea midfielder's comments came after Sarri's side had lost two of their previous three matches, and were about to face Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.
However, Sarri persisted with the system, and it was Kanté who opened the scoring with an excellent strike as the Blues beat the champions 2-0 in London.
His recent performances have also showcased the diminutive Frenchman's improvement and growth in the position, as typified by Sunday's superb display.
“(This role) is something I am enjoying and in a game I try to make that run sometimes,” Kanté said after the win.
Chelsea are now just two points off Spurs (third) and three of City (second), and are in a strong position to secure a top four finish in Sarri's debut season.
Sarri has introduced his lauded 'Sarri-ball' to Stamford Bridge, and has managed to fit both Jorginho and Kanté into his team.
Kanté is arguably still the world's best holding midfielder, but he is now proving his versatility.