Why is Maurizio Sarri Trying to Turn N’golo Kante into a Regular Midfielder?
Soccer managers live and die by their decisions. You make a choice to leave a certain player out or try to change a player’s position, and it can make or break you. If your team wins, then it’s a brilliant tactical choice, but if it fails, you wind up with egg on your face.
I’ll give you two examples. When Arsene Wenger decided to turn Thierry Henry, already a World Cup winner, into a winger/forward, it was a radical change, but it worked. After a shaky start, Henry took off, scored a ton of goals and went on to be one of the best players in the world. But when Germany coach Joachim Low decided to leave Manchester City winger Leroy Sane at home, he was pilloried for his decision since the former world champions came the World Cup with only one win.
Chelsea coach Mauricio Sarri is also in the same situation. He has decided to play N’golo Kante, widely regarded as the world’s best holding midfielder, as a regular midfielder. My question is why? As the old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Kante has his props in that position. He won two back-to-back English Premier League titles playing in that role and also won this year’s World Cup playing in his regular position. Over the years, the holding midfielder, (I remember when they were called defensive midfielders) has gone on to become a widely-valued position. Clubs now pay millions of dollars for what used to be seen as a largely unglamorous role. Players such as former England star Nobby Stiles, former Liverpool star Sammy Lee and Brazil’s Elzo were born in the wrong era.
And no one does it better than Kante. He seems to delight in the laborious task of breaking up offensive moves, and laying off the ball for attacking players. He also churns up and down the field with seemingly boundless energy. And he seems to be happy to shun the limelight as other stars bang in the goals, which often spring from his hard work.
But Sarri often has him lining up on the right side of midfield and getting into more offensive positions. According to Sarri, Kante’s usual position, sitting in front of the back four, doesn’t fit his preferred formation of 4–3–3.
There’s no doubt that Kante can do the job, he seems to be happy playing in any role, but why change him from the role he has performed so well in? Sarri seems to be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. This may have more to do with Sarri trying to fit Kante into his style of play, but I’m not a big believer in changing a player’s position if he’s thrived there. According to Premierleague.com, Kante has scored 2 goals this season. But if you look at last season’s stats, Kante excelled in defensive roles. He made 113 tackles all season and 68 percent were successful.
Only time will tell if Sarri is a tactical genius. Chelsea is still currently active in all competitions. But come July 2019 and Chelsea are trophyless, he’s going to face questions on why he decided to play the world’s best holding midfielder out of position.