The Premier League season is by no means over but already Chelsea seem to have secured the league title with over 10 games to go. They are cruising at the top with a 10-point lead over Tottenham in second place and the rest of the top four are battling it out to secure a place in the Champions League. Manchester United have several cup competitions to attend to, while Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City have all dropped points during key periods this season. Tottenham remain Chelsea’s biggest threat but they proved last season that they can crumble under pressure in the final weeks.
So with Chelsea on their way to league glory, there is one player who deserves all the plaudits despite his name rarely appearing in the headlines. N’Golo Kante joined the Blues in the summer for £30 million after he made a name for himself as a Leicester City talisman when they achieved the impossible and were named champions of England in 2015-16. The Frenchman was an ever-present in midfield alongside Danny Drinkwater and though his teammate was the player in the headlines after he was given his England debut, it was Kante who kept the clock ticking with devastating effect.
Chelsea recognised his talents and were one of a number of clubs interested in him in the summer; but who could say no to the possibility of challenging for the league title under Antonio Conte? Not many, and that’s why Kante now finds himself in the midst of one of the strongest teams in Europe – plus he is the main man. Alongside Nemanja Matic, Kante has proven to be a formidable holding midfielder and his role in the side is crucial to Chelsea’s success so far this season. They have an abundance of attacking players full of quality, including Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian but for the effective 3-4-3 system to work, Chelsea need a defensive man in midfield.
And there are none better than Kante at the moment. Not only is he one of the hardest working players on the pitch, he is strong despite his small figure. Kante will break down play, put in tackles all over the pitch and win back possession for his team. He makes some key passes too and reads the game better than anyone which allows him to put himself in the best positions to intercept the ball and set-up his team on the counter-attack. Chelsea play with a strong defensive back three and two forward-thinking wing-backs. It means they could be left open on the break but Matic and Kante work together to ensure they provide additional cover for the back four when those scenarios arise.
Costa has been banging in the goals up front but Kante’s efficiency in the role allows the striker to do so. On numerous occasions Kante has won the ball back for Chelsea in crucial areas and ensures his team can take advantage quickly by moving the ball forward. Costa is deadly when given space in the area but it is often the workman-like performances of Kante which ensures he gets the delivery quickly and often. His statistics speak for themselves too. He is in the top five rankings for passing (5th – 1,551) and his tackling (2nd – 91) as well as topping distance covered in the majority of his appearances.
The best defensive midfielders are the ones you rarely hear about because they turn up, do their job and rarely get any plaudits. It’s not often a tackle or an interception is deemed a match winner. It’s the goals which get all the glory and the penalty saves which earn praise but without Kante, Chelsea could be a very different side. They struggled last season with much the same team. Granted, it was an off season in terms of form, but Kante’s arrival has given the attacking players more freedom to roam and their effectiveness has increased dramatically. Hazard is often given a licence to move around freely, while Moses and Alonso are able to charge up the wings in the knowledge that should they lose possession, Kante and Matic are on hand to provide back-up.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sadio Mane and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have all made huge impacts on their teams by creating and scoring a number of goals but Kante’s arrival has turned Chelsea into one of the most effective units around. He has undoubtedly been the signing of the summer and should the Blues win the Premier League, he will become the first outfield player to achieve the feat in back-to-back seasons. In Kante, Chelsea have proven how effective a specialist defensive midfielder can be. Leicester’s fall from grace also highlights the impact he had on that side and they could be made to suffer.