N’Golo Kante and Claude Makelele are two French midfielders who were instrumental in winning consecutive Premier League titles for their teams. However, that is where their footballing similarities end.
The common misconception amongst football pundits, analysts and fans is that Kante is Makelele reincarnated. While I do believe this has something to do with the uncanny resemblance, it is still lazy analysis.
So, I will detail why Kante’s midfield role differs from Makelele’s, despite their mutual defensive functions.
The ‘Makelele role’
Makelele’s dominance in his single-pivot role coincided with Jose Mourinho’s introduction of the 4-3-3 formation to the Premier League – where most teams favoured the 4-4-2. In Mourinho’s first season, Chelsea set the record for fewest goals conceded (15), most wins (29) and most clean sheets (24). Records which I do not believe would have been broken without Makelele’s astute positioning and defensive nous.
Makelele played at the base of the midfield three during his time at Chelsea. His duties revolved around protecting his back four, breaking up and dictating the play. When interviewed by UEFA tv, Makelele described his role as being “in front of the defence and not moving too much.”
Yet, those who have had the pleasure of watching Kante’s title-winning seasons would recognise mobility as Kante’s biggest strength – something which Makelele was stripped of in his more disciplined deeper midfield role.
Kante under Ranieri
Under the tutelage of Claudio Ranieri in Leicester’s title-winning season, Kante operated in a double-pivot in a box-to-box role alongside either Danny Drinkwater or Andy King.
In the Fulham press conference before his game against Chelsea, Ranieri recalled his instructions to the Leicester central midfield pairing. “I told [Kante] and Drinkwater [that] one attacks and one defends,” declared Ranieri. “I don’t want them both attacking and nobody in front of my defensive line.”
Ranieri subsequently revealed that Kante’s superior mobility allowed him to attack and defend at an exceptional rate, making him the perfect box-to-box midfielder for Ranieri. “[Kante]’s fantastic because he is intelligent, he can run and attack and defend and he was very important for me.”
So, by his manager’s own admission, Kante’s role could not have been the same as Makelele’s as they had differing responsibilities. Makelele was instructed to guard his defence and dictate the game, while Ranieri gave Kante the attacking freedom to stride forward and build attacks.
Kante under Conte
Moving onto Kante’s title-winning season under Antonio Conte, Kante was initially deployed as a single pivot in a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 formation. But Chelsea only won three of their opening six Premier League games and changed to a 3-4-3 with Kante as a double pivot alongside Nemanja Matic.
This shift in formation not only accentuated Kante’s omnipresence on the pitch but saw Chelsea win 84% of their remaining league games, with Kante as a driving force in their title-winning season.
Kante as today’s answer to the ‘Makelele role’
The main difference between Kante and Makelele’s respective roles can be traced by tactical trends in the Premier League. Makelele thrived as the midfield anchor in a 4-3-3 formation which was a new trend in the league at that time. But that was also 10-15 years ago, and football tactics have evolved since then. Particularly in the Premier League, which has recently experienced a significant uptake in its intensity and speed.
This rise in intensity does not compliment the use of a single-pivot in midfield, as can be seen by Jorginho’s struggles at Chelsea. Rather, Kante’s offensive and defensive capabilities thrive in a double-pivot, where only one central midfielder attacks at a time. More pertinently, Kante’s stock rose significantly under Conte’s tenure where the tactical trend shifted to three defenders and wing-backs.
This would suggest that Kante’s role is an evolution of Makelele’s role, with the added attacking freedom necessary to exploit the former’s relentless locomotion.
Despite this, Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri has deployed Kante in an advanced right-central-midfield birth, where his responsibilities focus more on attacking runs than breaking up play. This becomes evident considering Kante’s drop in tackles and interceptions per 90 this season (1.6 and 0.9 respectively). These figures are much lower than in his two title-winning seasons (4.7 and 4.2 in 2015/16 and 3.6 and 2.4 in 2016/17).
There are not many central midfielders in world football who can simultaneously attack and defend at the same quality and intensity as N’Golo Kante. To fully capitalise on Kante’s expansive skill set, Sarri would be better suited playing Kante in a double-pivot alongside either Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho. This way, teams – like Manchester City – will not be able to isolate Jorginho so easily and stifle Chelsea’s build-up.
While many would argue that Sarri is misusing Kante, at least Sarri can recognise Kante’s attacking prowess. The same cannot be said for those who relentlessly compare Kante to Makelele at every given chance.
Kante’s role, quite clearly defined by Ranieri, revolved around driving forwards and winning possession against unsuspecting opponents for the counter. Under Conte, Kante operated in his familiar double-pivot as a mobile box-to-box midfielder.
Contrarily Makelele’s role, as defined by himself, involved shuttling across the space in front of his defence, reading and dictating the game without straying from his position.
Therefore, to analyse Kante with the same parameters as Makelele is negligent and shows a lack of analysis that goes unnoticed in the game. They may be two of the best central midfielders to grace the Premier League, but to conflate their respective roles based solely on their appearances is sorely wide of the mark.