A few days ago, former Blues star Gus Poyet said Chelsea have not been getting the best out of N’Golo Kante in the past two years.
He told Goal: “In Kante’s first year, he came to Chelsea and I made it public that he is the best central midfielder in the world.
“After a previous season as a number eight in that different position, we lost how important and unique he was as a player.”
From the best number six to just a good number eight
Regarding Poyet’s comment about Kante being the best centre midfielder in the world, it was not an exaggeration.
Chelsea won the Premier League the season Kante joined the squad in 2016. The French international was also named PFA Player of the Year in that season.
His exceptional ball-winning ability and constant running on the pitch seemingly provided Chelsea an extra man on the pitch.
Cesc Fabregas might not be the best midfielder defensive quality-wise, but with Kante alongside him in the midfield, Chelsea recorded the third-lowest conceded goals (33) in 2016/17.
— Chelsea FC – #StayHomeSaveLives (@ChelseaFC) April 24, 2017
Kante’s second season at Stamford Bridge was not as impressive as Chelsea finished fifth in the league. But Kante was still widely regarded a world-class midfielder. The 29-year-old was instrumental in France World Cup-winning campaign in 2018.
When Maurizio Sarri was appointed to succeed fellow Italian Antonio Conte, Chelsea brought Jorginho along with him.
Jorginho was the key in Sarri’s football in Napoli — a regista who dictates the tempo of the game. As a result, Kante was pushed forward to the right midfielder role.
Frank Lampard has also deployed Kante in the same position this season.
At the start of this season, Lampard told Metro: “The idea that he wins the ball probably as well as anyone in world football doesn’t mean he has to sit in front of the back four and do that.”
But data shows Chelsea have been wasting their arguably best player for the past couple of seasons.
Kante has seen a significant drop in his defensive outputs
In 2016/17 and 2017/18, Kante made an average of 3.6 and 3.3 tackles per league game, respectively. The numbers have dipped significantly to 2.1 in each of the last two seasons.
Kante also averaged 2.4 and 2.5 interceptions per league game under Conte. It went down to 1.2 per game last season and 2.1 so far this season.
Offensive-wise, Kante has in fact seen an improvement. He had four goals and four assists in the Premier League last season and has scored three so far this term. Kante only had a combined two goals and two assists in the two seasons under Conte.
However, the increase in his output has likely stemmed from the change of style of play from Conte’s counter-attacking football to a more attacking, possession-based football under Sarri and Lampard, rather than his position.
Kante averaged 0.6 and 1.2 key passes per game in 2016/17 and 2017/18. It went up slightly to 1.3 the past two seasons. He has also not been taking significantly more shots since being pushed forward (0.8 per game in 2016/17, 0.9 this season).
Kante still displays impressive numbers with France
Some may argue that perhaps it is Kante himself who has seen a drop in performance, not the position. But it is simply not the case.
At France national team, Kante still occupies the defensive midfielder role in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) October 16, 2018
From the four games France played against top nations like Germany and Netherlands in UEFA Nations League in 2018, Kante averaged 3.5 tackles and 2.8 interceptions per game.
It clearly suggests Chelsea have been wasting a world-class number six in a number eight position.