Following his side’s 2-1 win at West Ham United on Monday evening, there was a moment when Antonio Conte attempted to criticise N’Golo Kante. During that press conference, the Chelsea manager said that “he made 50 passes with five mistakes”. Conte added that “he has to improve”.
Before expanding on his point any further, Conte just simply broke into laughter. He certainly knew that criticising his midfield enforcer was as ludicrous as it sounded.
N’Golo Kante: The Unsung Hero at Chelsea
Currently, it seems impossible to point out faults in Kante’s game without falling victim of hysteria, especially after yet another commanding performance. The Frenchman bossed the midfield, making eight ball recoveries, the joint-most from any Chelsea player, along with four completed tackles; again no player from the away side made more.
Kante was like a wall that could not be passed, so energetic in his pressing, yet just as controlled in his attempts to win back the ball. If anything, it was business as usual.
Not for the first time this season, this was not Chelsea at their most fluent. The Blues had less possession of the ball, as well as less shots to West Ham. Though while the attacking flair remained, Conte’s men proved again that they are capable of taking the chances that come their way, grinding out another crucial win away from home. The ten-point gap was restored as the march for the title continued it’s momentum.
At the forefront was N’Golo Kante. However, it wasn’t his most complete display. The 25-year-old finished well below his midfield partner Cesc Fabregas in terms of the number of completed passes (45 compared to the Spaniard’s 66), fewer than Chelsea’s three centre-backs, and made only nine attacking-third passes throughout the match.
Yet it is what Kante provides defensively that is the real key aspect of his game. He not only offers admirable, consistent protection in front of Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta, but Kante’s work-rate and tenacity in the holding position give the likes of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Diego Costa license to focus their energy and efforts further up the pitch.
It is, therefore, no surprise the attacking trio have sparkled this season. Under Jose Mourinho, a manager known for being insistent on his forwards tracking back frequently, their attacking instincts and efforts were reduced significantly. Conte’s system, along with the assurance Kante provides, has seen a more dynamic Chelsea front-line as a result.
Kante’s presence allows Cesc Fabregas to also focus on his strengths; breaking through defensive lines with his notoriously precise passing. Kante is the ultimate self-less footballer and is perhaps the best Chelsea have had in the holding role since Claude Makelele.
After Chelsea’s convincing 3-1 home win over Arsenal, BBC pundit Alan Shearer underlined why Kante has been so impressive. “I don’t think I have ever seen a player as fit as this guy, Kante,” said the former Newcastle striker. “He gets around the pitch so much, breaks up play, stops the opposition in their tracks, and he can play, as we have said many times before. He breaks up and then sets up so many moves. He has been absolutely superb.”
The stats emphasise the huge influence Kante is having on this Chelsea side. Only Everton’s Idrissa Gueye (102) has completed more tackles than Kante’s 94 in the Premier League this season. In addition, the Chelsea man has made the second-most interceptions (61) out of any midfielder, behind only Ander Herrera (67). And to support Shearer’s point on Kante’s ability to play with the ball, only four players in the league have made more passes this season than the French midfielder (1601).
Kante also carries with him a winning mentality. Since arriving in the Premier League, his 63 appearances have yielded a remarkable 143 points for Leicester City and Chelsea. The contrast without him is stark. In 63 league matches without Kante, Leicester and Chelsea have just 72 points.
His ability to do the dirty work for his team-mates was an imperative feature behind Leicester’s stunning title triumph last year and is having the same impact during Chelsea’s dominance in the league this season.
Even on the rare occasion when Kante makes a mistake, as was the case when Mesut Ozil ghosted past him during the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal in September, Conte admires him no less. “I prefer this,” said the Italian tactician after the match. “He went late to stop an opponent. He went in not at the right time and he paid for it. I prefer he made a mistake through generosity. He’s a humble man, a humble player. I like these players who put the team before themselves.”
Of course, there are other aspects to Chelsea’s side that have been of similar importance. The improvement of Luiz and Victor Moses, the reliability of Azpilicueta, the creative magic of Hazard and the finishing prowess of Costa have all been essential. Though it is Kante’s relentless energy in midfield that has been the real catalyst behind Chelsea grinding out wins as frequently as they do.
Any team needs an N’Golo Kante and a second successive Premier League title nearly in his grasp proves just why.