His exquisite first touch permitted a strike on goal but as the Lyon keeper smothered it handily, N’Golo Kante’s sense of responsibility kicked in. Even before unleashing the thumbs up sign for the chance’s creator Jorginho, he was already jogging back, heads down, as if to mask a certain unease, perhaps even embarrassment, at being inside the Blues box.
Finding himself the furthest forward for Chelsea, the French midfielder lies in unfamiliar territory. Forgive the pun, but this is not his area of expertise. This is not where he lurks in wait, anticipates a pass or movement, wins the ball back and launches his side into attack. Quite simply, this is not his place. Or is it?
The appointment of Maurizio Sarri presents Kante the opportunity to further deepen an already massive array of skillset – something he has accomplished under Antonio Conte. Fresh from a fairytale championship with Leicester, the Paris native arrived at Chelsea in 2016 with a reputation of being a tireless worker, oozing with an assured, if quiet, defensive dominance across the middle of the pitch.
In his debut campaign with the Blues that led to his second Premier League winners’ medal, he displayed mastery of the particular trait that led to him being deservedly named PFA Premier League Player of the Year. Conte certainly enjoyed the qualities that Kante had but the Italian also began urging the diminutive midfielder to exert more authority on the ball, especially in his second campaign. Despite the Blues suffering a customary dip in form following their title-winning season – a most distinct trend in the past decade – Kante continued to perform at a high level, perhaps even improve on his displays.
Let’s put this into context. At the King Power Stadium, his playstyle suited Claudio Ranieri’s counterattacking approach. Kante, being a defensive and selfless player, allowed the Foxes to wreak havoc on the counter, with the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez assured with the knowledge that the spaces they leave behind will be covered by their industrious teammate.
Yet playing for a club like Chelsea demanded a more well-rounded approach from Kante. His effectiveness as a destroyer was certainly a boon to any team but, especially against “weaker” opposition, the Blues dominated possession, meaning he, in effect, spent more time on the ball. As the 27-year-old began to demand the ball more, he was able to utilise his understated passing skills and vision on the pitch, allowing him to assert more influence on the team’s build-up phase.
And now on to a new manager with Sarri, with whom he needs to take another step up the ladder of his evolution as a player. He covers ground, recovers possession, and aids in moving the ball from defence to attack but under the former Napoli manager, Kante must now include timed forward runs into his playing dynamic. In Sarri’s system, Jorginho will be playing the deepest of a midfield three, and knowing the Italy international is a more-than-able defensive cover, Kante can have more freedom to roam upfront more so than ever.
Naturally one to allow the more glittered pieces around him to blitz ahead, it may take some time to infuse this into Kante’s rather timid personality on the pitch (and off of it as well) but when he shaves off his reluctance to bomb forward and eventually attack the box, the World Cup winner’s striking instincts do not look too shabby.