With Chelsea losing two matches in quick succession 99% of the chat building up to the showdown with Manchester City was based around French World Cup winner N’Golo Kante and where Maurizio Sarri has been preferring to play him this season.
Armchair pundits have joined forces with actual pundits in declaring Sarri’s decision to move ‘the best defensive midfielder in the world’ out of his preferred position madness and the finger became easier to point once Chelsea’s unbeaten start to the season came to an end.
In this piece, we are going to have a look at how much of this debate is pure hyperbole and whether there is actually any statistical evidence to back up the suggestion that Kante should still be moved; even after Chelsea shocked Manchester City on Saturday night.
Kante 2016/17 vs Kante 2018/19
The first thing I am keen to be clear on is the difference in pitch position from Kante under Conte and Kante under Sarri.
As expected, there is a clear bias to Kante being more right-sided this season. Granted, this is no great shock but I was curious to see the similarity between this season and Chelsea’s title-winning season of 2016/17. Kante was often in a two and there is a theory that suggests all he does in a two is sit deep. His heat map from that season shows that Kante actually does spend a lot of time further up the pitch, looking to win the ball in higher positions.
This realisation means I want to know more about his numbers from that season and this.
Before we delve in, remember that the reason Sarri wants Kante further up the pitch is not just so he can accommodate ‘his man’ Jorginho in the starting XI. It is so that Kante can do what Kante does best in a higher position on the field.
Do the numbers reflect this? We are comparing Kante today to the Kante that won the title with Chelsea.
Recoveries in the opposition half: 9.26 in 2016/17 vs 6.6 this season
Interceptions: 5.2 per 90 in 2016/17 vs 3.98 this season
Duels won: 19.16 in 2016/17 vs 15.71 this season
Accurate passes: 90% in 2016/17 vs 89% this season
Total successful actions: 81.24 in 2016/17 vs 78.49% this season
We do have to take into account that we are not comparing two things that are exactly the same. Conte’s set-up was completely different to how Sarri lines his team up so we are not simply comparing Kante playing two different roles in the same system.
But, Sarri’s thinking was to have Kante doing virtually the same thing as before just higher up the field.
With that thinking in mind, the numbers suggest it has negatively affected Kante’s output and influence for Chelsea. He is not hitting the same level as the season that they won the Premier League. Randomly, he is actually getting as far up the pitch as he did in the title-winning season but he is clearly restricted to the right-hand side and that restriction is resulting in his levels dropping this season.
Are we talking about a huge drop in output? No, we are not. Therefore I would imagine that Sarri looks at the drop, considers what he gets in return – that being Jorginho being more technically adept in the deeper role – and feels that is a fair trade.
Is Kante a bad player in his new role? My gut instinct says no, of course not. Watch his performance against Manchester City, albeit that that was a match where classic Kante was required than a game against a lesser side where you want Kante to be able to be more of a playmaker.
A future piece will look at Kante versus other players playing in a similar position this season to see how his numbers compare.
In the meantime, could Sarri consider the unthinkable and rotate Kante out of the side for games where Chelsea should dominate and might need a more creative influence in there to break a side down?
Given he has the options of Barkley, Fabregas, Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek it is not beyond the realms of possibility.
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