Early this week, responding to Chelsea’s victory over Tottenham at White Hart Lane, Daniel Storey, in praise of Frank Lampard’s tactics, typed one of the most extraordinary sentences ever seen in football journalism:
‘N’Golo Kanté had the opportunity to push forward, knowing that Mateo Kovacic and three central defenders were behind him.’
Now take a look at that. We’re talking about the best defensive midfielder on the planet, and his manager is being praised for letting him go forward, so a much lesser defender can sit back and defend.
This makes no sense, and never will. Hell hath no fury like a Kanté fan seeing his idol misused, and it’s time to bring the fury. N’Golo Kante is not, repeat not, repeat again not, a box-to-box midfielder.
In attack, the problem is simple: he’s not a creator, and he’s not much of a scorer. He plays the simple pass to perfection, and will always make the intelligent run, but you rarely see an end product. For a mid-table team, that kind of player can be very useful. I can easily see Burnley or Crystal Palace with a player like that. But for a team with top-four ambitions, Kanté in the box-to-box role is a liability.
Time to roll out the heavy artillery, meaning the stats. In matches Kanté has started this season, Chelsea have four wins, four losses, and one draw. In games he hasn’t started, Chelsea have six wins, three losses, and one draw. They’re doing better without him, and no, the schedule hasn’t made a difference. Kanté has played against Leicester, Liverpool, Southampton (twice), Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Everton, and Tottenham. Some difficult teams, some much easier teams.
Expected goals, you ask? With him, they average 1.73 xG/match. Without him, it’s 2.16. That’s close to a half a goal a match, a huge difference. Six of Chelsea’s seven top xG games have come with Kanté out of the line-up.
But of course he’s made the defence better, right? Right. The xGA is 1.29/game without him, 1.01 with. A definite advantage, but short of the disadvantage in xG. Once more: Kanté in his current role is a liability.
What makes this more striking is that even though he’s scored three goals, the numbers still show him in the red. But it should be no surprise that he has zero assists. He has a decent number of key passes, but they’re rarely to good shooting positions. His expected assists per 90 minutes is 0.11, the same as Matthew Lowton, Erik Pieters, and Willy Boly. He’s even behind Jesse Lingard.
A useful comparison is John Lundstram, who plays much the same position as Kanté for a team that takes far, far fewer shots. He’s scored three goals as well, and has notched two assists with an xA/90 of 0.14. Lundstram is a useful player getting the maximum out of his talent; Kanté is a brilliant player playing where he doesn’t belong.
This can be hard to see, because Kanté always looks so good whatever he does. He’s amazingly smart, and he almost never makes a mistake. But in attack you can make plenty of mistakes, as long as they’re mixed in with the great plays. Kanté almost never makes great plays either.
Naturally he makes great plays on defence. But he can’t make as many if he’s farther upfield. He’s at his best in reading the play and moving to confront the opponent, but there’s less time to read the play when you’re farther forward. One of the greatest of tacklers is at his lowest tackles per 90 minutes ever.
If you’ve watched Chelsea play, you’ll also have seen that people are running by Kanté a lot. So it figures that his tackle percentage is also the lowest ever. He frequently has to resort to fouling, and his fouls per 90 are way way above his previous high.
Yes, teams are allowed to have a weak link, even if they’re Champions League contenders. But Kanté? He should be one of your strongest players, really the strongest of them all.
OK, deep breath. You can tell I’m just a frustrated Kanté fan venting his ire. But come on, everyone. Remember the Kanté of the Leicester title year, and the Chelsea title year? That’s the man in blue we want to see. If he were really making a difference for Chelsea, then fine. But the difference he’s making is in the wrong direction.
It’s time to end the experiment. Drop N’Golo… deeper!