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Should Chelsea consider selling N’Golo Kante this Summer?

Prior to the abrupt suspension of the Premier League due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, it appeared that this upcoming transfer wind...

Prior to the abrupt suspension of the Premier League due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, it appeared that this upcoming transfer window would present an exciting opportunity for Roman Abramovich and the Chelsea hierarchy: a chance to spend a ludicrous amount of money and - more specifically - a chance to spend it wisely.

Not only were the board set to have a much larger transfer budget than usual following 2 transfer windows without spending and the departures of both Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata for a combined £150m (excluding reported add-ons), it felt to me like this time we weren’t going to waste it like we have done previously.

My main reasoning behind this is the fact that since the last “proper” transfer window of ours in the Summer of 2018, Petr Cech has been appointed as a technical and performance adviser which should hopefully allow the former goalkeeper to provide club director Marina Granovskaia with the necessary football knowledge – something that she has been endlessly criticized by fans for not having in recent years - to make positive decisions in the transfer market.

Secondly, I felt this growing feeling based on various reports and insights around the club that the board has recognized these previous mistakes and learned from them. According to The Athletic, Chelsea decided not to sign any players in the most recent January window because they primarily did not want to repeat the mistakes of past windows such as the Summer of 2017 in which “pressure from Antonio Conte” made them spend roughly £55m on deadline-day deals for Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta that they are still dealing with the repercussions of. It now appears that the recruitment focus is more on quality than quantity and that the club would be aiming to buy a small number of high-profile players while remaining cautious of inflated prices rather than succumb to other club’s demands and waste money on sub-standard players.

Furthermore, since Summer 2018 we have also appointed club legend Frank Lampard who “has further cultivated a healthy working relationship with director Marina Granovskaia and is regarded internally as a real asset in persuading transfer targets to join” according to The Athletic. Lampard has also had nearly a full season to assess the squad and decide where he needs improvement before the upcoming window, unlike some previous managers who have tried to bring in players based off only a couple of months of pre-season training.

Couple this mindset and new personnel with Marina Granovskaia’s track record of effective negotiation – which allowed us to force Real Madrid into paying a fee that could rise to £130m for Eden Hazard even though the Belgian had just 1 year left on his Chelsea contract, had made it very clear that Real Madrid was the only club he would sign for and that manager Zinedine Zidane was his childhood footballing idol – and it looks like we could be optimistic ahead of this transfer window, which could ultimately define our foreseeable future.

Fast forward a couple of months and this picture has changed slightly. Due to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, there seems to be a growing likelihood that many football clubs will not be able to afford these expensive transfer deals. According to The Mirror, Chelsea is set to lose roughly £91m in TV money alone if the season is not resolved, and these sorts of losses could be detrimental for some European clubs. Smaller clubs who are struggling with finances may be forced into letting some of their players go, but bigger clubs who are coping well may decide to hold onto their most prized assets for the moment.

There is also uncertainty about the Summer window and whether it will need to be extended, with FIFA having already confirmed that they are planning to shift the window so that it falls between the end of the current season and the start of the next season.

A question that has recently cropped up, which would have been almost unimaginable to Chelsea fans a year ago, is whether there would be some benefit to “cashing out” on N’Golo Kante in order to fully fund a rebuild this Summer.

Now don’t get me wrong – Kante is a world-class player, no doubt. Since switching to the Premier League in 2015, the Frenchman has won 2 Premier League titles, 1 FA Cup, 1 Europa League, the PFA Player of the Year Award and the World Cup in Russia. He is renowned for being one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, with his defensive abilities unrivalled by any other Chelsea midfielders for sure.

But with growing concerns regarding his increasingly frequent injuries and the fact that, at 29-years-old, we may have already witnessed the peak of his career, should the club consider selling Kante this Summer?

The reason why this question would seem so ridiculous to a Chelsea fan if you asked them only a couple of years ago is that Kante when he joined Chelsea in 2016, was swift to establish himself as an incredible defensive midfielder. In a double pivot next to Nemanja Matic in Antonio Conte’s favoured 3-4-3 formation, Kante spent 2 years as more of a central, sitting (but by no means static) midfielder who could shield the centre-backs and break up attacks with countless numbers of interceptions and tackles.

However, under Maurizio Sarri, he was forced out more to the right side of a 3-man midfield by Jorginho and was instructed to play higher up the pitch and win the ball back in the final third rather than in the defensive third. This allowed him to boost his goal and assist tallies, picking up 4 goals and 4 assists in the Premier League in 18/19 compared to 2 of each across both of the previous 2 seasons.

There was plenty of debate though, as Maurizio Sarri faced heavy criticism for the way he used Kante. Fans and pundits alike believed his defensive ability was wasted in his new advanced role and that he was no longer as valuable to the team as in the past. Kante, who had previously picked up 4.7 tackles and 4.2 interceptions per game at Leicester in 15/16, was now picking up just 3.3 tackles and 2.5 interceptions per game. 

This criticism towards Sarri – which was perhaps exacerbated by the Italian’s unpopularity amongst the fans in West London - was unfair, however, as it is quite obvious that when switching from a counter-attacking system like Conte’s to an offensive system like Sarri’s the players would now have to be much more aggressive in terms of winning the ball back in order to control games and create more chances.

In defence of Sarri, it is also argued that Kante’s new role – which Lampard has also adopted - allows him to utilize his immense stamina and energy more effectively than in a sitting midfield role. This was perfectly showcased by his outstanding performance against Liverpool in the Super Cup last August in which he completed a spectacular 8 take-ons while also creating 4 chances, making 3 tackles and 1 interception, tirelessly sprinting all over the pitch for 120 minutes despite being half-injured. Even Frank Lampard was amazed by the Frenchman’s work ethic in that game, saying: “[Kante] said to me at half-time in extra-time that his legs were finished, his legs were dead – and then he’s sprinting 50 yards to cover.”

Gianfranco Zola, who was Maurizio Sarri’s assistant during his short tenure at Stamford Bridge, also insists that Kante’s advanced role is much more suitable because he “is not a sitting midfielder”. 
“He has always played in a midfield two,” the Italian explained. “First with Leicester and then in his first two years with Chelsea. At Leicester, he played with Drinkwater, who was the sitter. [Kante] was moving a lot, free to go forward, sideways, backwards - whatever he wanted. The same early at Chelsea when Matic was the sitting one and Kante was doing the same job.”

Frank Lampard has deployed Kante in a very similar role to that of Sarri’s last season in which he is required to make more runs behind the opposition’s backline, as shown by his goal against Manchester City in November where he made an early run and was able to latch onto the end of Kovacic’s long pass before sneaking the ball into the net past Ederson.

Although there have been some successes from using Kante in this role, they have mostly come against more threatening opposition in big games where the play has been more end-to-end. In games against lower-league sides who use low defensive blocks, Kante’s lack of creativity in the final third and passing ability in the final third is exposed, such as in Chelsea’s 1-0 defeats to both Bournemouth and Newcastle this season where the Blues have struggled to unlock the door and score goals when Kante was playing beside Jorginho in midfield.

Kante’s lack of chance creation and inability to cut through defences with long passes has been an ongoing issue for several years, which is not surprising considering that, before he joined Chelsea, he would not have been accustomed to playing for the team with the majority of the possession that must keep the ball moving. Between the 15/16 and 16/17 seasons, Kante went from completing 39.16 passes per game at Leicester to completing 60.63 at Chelsea, and that was even before he started playing in Sarri’s attacking system where passing was more important. Even when he was playing in his deeper role under Antonio Conte, his manager admitted that he needed to work on his passing in order to aid the team offensively.

“We are working on some aspects with N’Golo to improve him, such as his forward passing,” Conte said following Chelsea’s 2-1 win over West Ham at the London Stadium in 2017. “He can improve that. We are hoping to make him a more complete player. I know that he made 50 passes and he made 5 mistakes. He has to improve on this.”

Not only is Kante poor as a creative midfielder but his defensive contributions have also dropped dramatically under Lampard, with the Frenchman now averaging a measly 1.8 tackles, 1.4 interceptions and 6.8 recoveries per game this season.

In my opinion, Jorginho and Kovacic is our best double midfield pivot pairing by a long way. Although neither is particularly recognized as a defensive-minded midfielder, between them they make plenty of interceptions and tackles to break up opposition attacks, while also creating a high volume of chances. This was demonstrated by the pair’s emphatic display during Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Tottenham in February in which they amassed 5 tackles, 5 interceptions, 151 passes, 4 key passes, 7 accurate long balls, 2 accurate through balls and 6 dribbles between them. It is also no coincidence that both Jorginho and Kovacic started in the majority of Chelsea’s 9 wins across 11 consecutive games in all competitions between late September and early November this season.

Moreover, there is plenty of competition for starting places in midfield as it is, with several younger players looking for minutes to assist their developments. As it stands, Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic, Mount, Loftus-Cheek, Barkley, Gilmour, Anjorin, Gallager, Ampadu and even James (who can play in midfield) could all be competing for a maximum of 3 midfield places next season.

With Jorginho, Kovacic, Gilmour, and Ampadu (who recently completed 93 out of 98 passes with just 109 total touches on the ball, while also making 5 interceptions in a stellar performance against Tottenham in the Champions League for RB Leipzig) all able to play in deep midfield roles where they both have to defend and start attacks, if Lampard can find a balance where he doesn’t need to use an out-and-out defensive midfielder then there is very little need for a player like N’golo Kante.

Additionally, there are also mounting concerns about whether N’Golo Kante, at 29, will be able to remain consistently fit. Whether you think this injury-ridden season of his is simply an anomaly or not, it still seems worrying that he has missed 20 out of 42 games in all competitions for Chelsea this season, caused by a series of short-term niggles that haven’t appeared to go away.

This series essentially began when Kante was forced off the field with an injury after just 9 minutes against Watford last May, with Sarri admitting afterwards that it was a mistake to not allow the Frenchman to rest. Against all the odds, Kante was rushed back for a shock return in the Europa League final against Arsenal a few weeks later and played the full 90 minutes after having an injection in his knee. This was detrimental for him in the long-term, meaning he was sent home during Chelsea’s pre-season tour of Japan and went on to miss their opening game of the season against Manchester United, before being rushed back once again to play 120 minutes against Liverpool in the Super Cup which didn’t help him either.

To make matters worse, Didier Deschamps called Kante up to the France squad in October, where he picked up an injury in the warm-up before a Euro 2020 Qualifier against Iceland which meant he missed many more Chelsea matches. Despite this, Deschamps called only half-fit Kante up for more Qualifiers in November, and understandably the midfielder could only put in a sub-par performance against Moldova.

What I am saying is that for a player like Kante who is seemingly everywhere on the field and constantly running, it is almost inevitable that, sooner or later, he will struggle with reoccurring injuries like these. Even if his absences in this current season are just a result of overuse across a number of years, there may always be this risk that he could continue to suffer from these injuries unless he is given lots of rest and rehabilitation, which is difficult in such a fixture-packed season.

So, do I think Chelsea should consider Kante this Summer? Yes, but only as a consideration. By no means do I think we should aim to sell him, but we should definitely take this into account should we receive a high enough offer. 

According to Goal, Zinedine Zidane has been a long-term admirer of Kante, and every transfer window we always see a vast number of reports suggesting that a whole host of European giants are planning to make an approach for him. For the first-ever time, I think that this Summer we should not declare Kante “not for sale”, but instead listen to bids in excess of £100m, let’s say. Even if Kante does manage to be fit for a whole season, his current contribution to the team is not worth £100m plus nearly £300k-a-week in wages and his value is set to astronomically decline once he enters his 30s.

If a Summer rebuild does still go ahead in the transfer window amid the current economic hardship, then the money could certainly be better spent elsewhere on attacking players. From the fact that Chelsea ranks 2nd in terms of expected goals (xG) at home but last in terms of taking those chances, it’s clear that Lampard’s system creates enough chances to win games but the forwards are not good enough at finishing them. With the correct attacking reinforcements, alongside Hakim Ziyech, Chelsea could easily break into the Premier League top 3 rather than having to fight for 4th place.

With any leftover funds, Chelsea could also potentially buy a new player who is similar to Kante anyway. According to Goal, Chelsea is monitoring Lille’s 21-year-old Boubakary Soumare but do not currently see midfield reinforcements as a priority, while Leicester’s 23-year-old Wilfred Ndidi and Atletico’s 26-year-old Thomas Party could also be suitors to Kante who share his energy and dynamism but are also younger, more creative and better-suited to an attacking system like the one Lampard will want to use for a number of years.

Either way, there is no denying that Kante is still an exceptional player and I definitely would not be upset to see him stay at Chelsea beyond this Summer.

Written by Oliver McCabe
Twitter: @OliverMcCabe_

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