N’Golo Kante had a chance to beat West Ham United for Chelsea. Just after West Ham missed a chance to break the deadlock at the other end in the 80th minute, Chelsea winger Willian beat his defender on the left wing and sent in a low cross to Kante. Kante’s left-footed shot went over the goal and into the stands.
The cross was difficult to handle, but, nonetheless, it was one of Chelsea’s best chances all match. The miss highlighted a problem Kante has dealt with all season: He is being asked to contribute more as an offensive player, and that’s not what he’s good at yet.
Everyone in the world knows what Kante does best. He won the Premier League twice and the FA Cup as a defensive midfielder. He won the World Cup in the same position. He’s the best ball winner in the world, with a supernatural sense of where attacks will develop, and the energy and technique to force attackers into dead ends. One of the most incredible sights in world soccer is the fear that Kante instills when he’s in his natural position, an aura that causes opponents to avoid the middle of the field rather than dare to engage him.
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri knows what Kante does best, and yet, he’s the one asking Kante to play on the right side of the midfield, higher up from his best position. The move is necessary so that Sarri if wants to satisfy his vision: A new, possession-based, quick passing style of play led by Jorginho creating from deep. To do that, Kante, who has made his name stripping the ball from more creative players, now has to become one of them.
The experiment began well. In Chelsea’s first game against Huddersfield Town, Kante didn’t look too uncomfortable in his new position, and he even scored. Chelsea won five straight matches afterwards. Even if Kante wasn’t at his best, at least he wasn’t actively being detrimental to the team.
But then the match against West Ham ended 0-0, and Kante’s offensive weaknesses were made apparent. At times he seemed unsure of what runs to make, or was offside when a more seasoned attacker wouldn’t have been. He had trouble crossing the ball and passing. He also missed a wonderful headed chance.
The match brought back arguments that Chelsea was making a mistake. That the idea of what Sarri wants is more attractive than the reality of it.
Kante struggled so much against West Ham that when Ross Barkley was readying to come on in the 79th minute, it seemed obvious to anyone watching that the Frenchman would be replaced. Instead, Mateo Kovačić was taken off, and two minutes later Kante missed that golden opportunity to win the game.
Sarri decided to keep Kante on the field because he can’t afford to take him off. Having Barkley and Kovačić on the field at the same time, above Jorginho, would make the team too vulnerable, defensively. The realization of Sarri’s perfect Chelsea team depends on Kante being able to develop some offensive skill so he can be the box-to-box player who provides balance to the midfield, while Jorginho occupies Kante’s old position and creates. For Chelsea to reach its full potential, Kante needs to stay on the field and learn.
That education is naturally going to come with growing pains. He can’t become Naby Keita overnight. Sergio Aguero went through a similar problem with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and was repeatedly benched until he became the more complete forward Guardiola wanted. Kante is in the same position, except he is too critical to Chelsea right now to sit.
So because Kante has to learn on the fly, we get to witness a rare experiment. Established and specialized players like Kante usually don’t get the opportunity to become something more. For big clubs like Chelsea, every three points is essential, and so players often train solely to optimize what they do best. The position switch gives Kante a chance he wouldn’t have had anywhere else under any other manager. He can go from being the best at one thing, to perhaps someone great at both ends of the pitch.
Kante’s goal against Huddersfield showed how far he’s come. He made a run forward to the far post, as Pedro and Alvaro Morata took up the middle, while Willian beat his defender on the left wing. When the cross came in, Kante took a few steps away from the goal to create space from his defender and then hit the ball on volley with his left. It wasn’t a clean strike, but it was a precise one. Kante was so surprised by what he did he didn’t know how to celebrate.
Even the miss against West Ham that made Kante’s offensive inability so painfully obvious, also showed his growth. That he was able to make a run and create space for the shot is something that didn’t seem possible for Kante even a year ago.
Kante’s evolution will take time. The new role will often seem like a misuse of a great player. When he struggles, people will naturally want him back to where he’s most comfortable. But Chelsea have shown they can win with this new system. A draw against West Ham doesn’t change that or erase the success in the previous games.
It’s exciting to imagine what Kante could be. He doesn’t have to be wildly successful (and it’s probably naive to think that someone learning offensive skills at 27 years old can ever truly be great in attack) to appreciate the effort behind what he and Chelsea are doing.
There may be comfort in insisting Kante be what he has always been. But you can’t blame Chelsea for wondering what the future could hold if the best ball winner in the world became an all-around threat.