Frank Lampard Will Reap the Rewards From Returning N’Golo Kante to Favoured Role

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N’Golo Kante impressed in Chelsea’s season opener at Brighton | Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Chelsea’s Monday night trip to the south coast in their season opener was met with widespread anticipation.

It was the start of a German revolution, a new dawn with a club icon at the helm following his debut season in which the Blues undoubtedly overachieved.

Timo Werner and Kai Havertz were in Frank Lampard’s starting XI as the visitors underwhelmed in a 3-1 triumph over Brighton. The focus was wholeheartedly set on the pair of central Europeans – with any misdemeanours ready to be published to the wider world via the iPhone of a 16-year-old Manchester United fan – which meant the work of one man typically went under the radar.

N’Golo Kante’s performance against the Seagulls was nothing short of a throwback. The sort of showing that helped him emerge as Europe’s most effective and destructive midfielder who spearheaded Premier League and World Cup triumphs.

And to think there were genuine real-life humans who wanted this man out of SW5 this summer.

Nevertheless, in the two years succeeding France’s World Cup triumph in 2018 there’s no doubting Kante’s almost untouchable status did come into question. To little fault of his own, mind.

Maurizio Sarri’s incessancy on using the Frenchman as a number eight in a 4-3-3 following the arrival of metronomic midfielder Jorginho combined with an unfortunate injury record – he missed 24 games in the last two seasons – saw his overall effectiveness as a midfielder dwindle.

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There was some logic to Kante playing higher upfield for Maurizio Sarri | James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images

The 5’6″ monster was making less tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes under Sarri compared to Antonio Conte’s last season at the helm (3.52 to 5.35) and was also less disruptive in one-v-one’s – with his success rate in these situations dropping from 36.3% in 2017/18 to 32.8%.

His more advanced role can be neatly summarised by the fact he was making 7.03 pressures in the attacking third per 90 minutes in 2018/19, a huge increase from just 2.61 a season prior.

Kante’s unique profile had been altered to fit Sarri’s demands – essentially fitting Jorginho in – which meant he was taken up positions on the pitch he simply wasn’t comfortable in. Sure, he would end the recently departed Juventus boss’ sole season in west London with a career-high eight goal contributions, but the Frenchman was also progressing the ball with less efficiency and conviction, completing fewer dribbles and getting dispossessed more times per 90 than ever before.

The great and most importantly distinct Kante just wasn’t the same. Sarri had evolved the Frenchman into just another midfielder.

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The Frenchman battled injury for much of the 2019/20 campaign | Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

The 29-year-old’s frustration failed to wane during the 2019/20 campaign. The injuries mounted while opportunities to return to his most destructive role were once again limited.

However, some of his best football last term came as part of Lampard’s favoured 4-3-3 but this time at the base. He proved a more stable single-pivot option than the unathletic and woeful transition defender Jorginho, although the limitations which Sarri feared upon his arrival in regards to Kante serving as a metronome and receiving on the half-turn were laid bare.

The Frenchman’s function as the positional midfielder also meant he was unable to do what he does best. He remained restricted. On a leash, almost.

That poses the question: what even is the ‘N’Golo Kante role’?

He’s not a holding or even a defensive midfielder, so what exactly is he?

A double pivot destroyer. That’s what.

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The diminutive midfielder took the Premier League by storm in 2015/16 | Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images

His finest work ever since his €8m move from Caen in 2015 has come as part of a midfield two.

Whether in Claudio Ranieri’s 4-4-2 alongside Danny Drinkwater, Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 partnering Nemanja Matic or Didier Deschamps’ 4-2-3-1 with Paul Pogba by his side, Kante has continued to shine serving as the roaming wrecking ball. It’s the role which enables the midfielder to simply dominate the second phase, contest duels all over the field and cover as much distance as humanly – or inhumanly – possible.

That’s why Lampard’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 – which he seemingly ditched in the second half of last season – against Brighton was so significant. Sure, there were issues elsewhere which will certainly need to be ironed out ahead of their clash with the champions next Sunday, but the change in system got the very best out of Kante.

The midfielder’s underrated efficiency in possession was laid bare, completing 38 passes with a 92.1% success rate, while his six interceptions and three tackles ranked first and second respectively among the Chelsea side.

Amid an impressive Seagull performance, Kante was not only the man who brought that much-needed security and compactness to the Blues midfield, but who also astutely picked the opportune moments to leave his position and press – often triggering promising moments in transition and disrupting the technically proficient Brighton midfield trio.

It was no surprise that he covered the most distance at the Amex and was making lung-busting overlapping runs from midfield in the dying embers of a contest in which his side were two goals up purely for the fun of it.

For anyone who isn’t a regular watcher of Deschamps’ France, Monday night’s display was a timely reminder of Kante’s prowess. His ability hasn’t diminished, he’s simply been misused.

N’Golo Kante unquestionably remains the best in the world at what he does and Frank Lampard will continue to reap the benefits of returning the most unique of footballers to their most destructive role.

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