ANALYSIS: Kante’s New Role Under Sarri – Mistake Or Masterstroke?

Chelsea's N'Golo Kante in action with Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey.

Reuters/John Sibley

Maurizio Sarri’s arrival at Chelsea has raised much hope to the London side regaining their hallowed spot at the top of English football. However, the former Napoli manager has taken a very stringent route to achieve that, and this is by entirely redoing the tactics and formation that the team has been built upon.

Of all his changes, the one that sticks out like a sore thumb is the change in the role that N’Golo Kante has been assigned, from his expertise position of a defensive midfielder to a straight-up central attacking role.

Will this change spell trouble for the London Blues, or is this the alteration upon which the side will build a title-winning campaign?

The prime reason behind Kante’s change is the arrival of Jorginho alongside Sarri from Napoli. The Italian is also a defensive specialist, and achieved much acclaim for his tactical presence in the Serie A. Changing Kante to an attacking role corresponds directly to what Jorginho brings to Chelsea’s roster.

REUTERS/Toby Melville

First of all, Jorginho is a calmer presence at the top of the defense, a stark contrast to Kante, the powerhouse whose brilliance stems from his incredible work rate and sheer intent to cover every part of the midfield. Jorginho’s is a style that suits Sarri far more than the one employed by Conte.

What makes this style work is the ‘regista’ role that the Italian fulfills. Here, it is his conduit presence from the back that drives the game forward, but instead of passing it back or merely channeling it to his co-midfielders, Jorginho’s proven intent to instead play it long and directly to the forwards can make a massive difference in their offense. This is despite the fact that when deployed in his traditional defensive role, Kante has won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and most recently, the World Cup with France.

What makes this switch work is that the 27-year-old’s skill-set contributes brilliantly to the front as well, in addition to complementing Chelsea’s flaws. Chief amongst these is his tendency for tackling and winning the ball. Kante has repeatedly tabled and won 100+ tackles in every season since 2014. This skill, when deployed up front, results in Chelsea winning the ball much earlier and usually in the offensive half of the field itself.

As a result, their defensive chinks aren’t counter-intuitive to this act, which would be the case if Kante did the same in his former role. The Arsenal match clearly displayed that Chelsea tend to make massive errors in their backline, and the only way this can be balanced is if they are able to create and capitalize chances upfront.

In essence, what Sarri is trying to do with Jorginho and Kante is recreate the dynamic that the former shared with Allan back at Napoli. In that case too, Allan winning a majority of his tackles and driving the ball forward ensured great success.

At Stamford Bridge, when Jorginho acts as a patient conduit from the back, the work rate of Kante creates an attacking threat that Morata alone can’t produce. When coupled with his pressing tendency, what Chelsea can boast of is a midfield that is an all-round menace.

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri looks dejected at the end of the match.

REUTERS/Toby Melville

The sole problem in this system is that the team is still adapting to it. Their backline is clearly missing the defensive assurance that Kante provided, while the Frenchman is getting used to his advanced role. However, the very fact that he is creating chances and attempting shots on goal himself is a positive indicator of what Sarri wants.

All in all, the reason why this is a master-stroke is that it evolves Kante from a defensive player to a box-to-box midfielder as well. As a result, when conditions force a change, Kante can simply alter his position rather than the side having to rely on bringing in fresh feet.

If it works out the way he intends to, Sarri can truly make Kante the complete midfielder – a tank that is tactically sound and ferocious up-front. Of course, the ‘if’ is the keyword here.