This is a Christmas story; a story of a difference maker who came bearing defensive gifts. He’s not a goalscorer nor is he a flashy dribbler or headline grabber. It’s the story of N’Golo Kanté.
It began on the first Monday in August 2015. It marked the day he completed a move from Caen in France to Leicester City. Good move for a team looking to stave off relegation, right? Yes, but what transpired has gone down in footballing history as one of the greatest upsets in top flight football. The mere fact that a team fighting relegation just a season before could challenge for England’s top prize against the money, tradition, and drawing power of the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Liverpool was feat enough, but to win…heresy. This is an indicator of a tectonic shift, or multiple. What followed was a perfect storm of an off-season for every one of these favoured teams and a remarkable transformation in Leicester. Football is a game won from the back. Make no mistake, a high powered offensive unit can win, but history has proven that top defences cross the line first more than not. It’s the way a team like Italy have been able to carve out four World Cups. Despite being blessed with incredible attacking talents through the years, their defence has been the ultimate rock.
Now this would indicate that Leicester had stellar defenders. Not really. However, they utilised the services of a man operating in a deep midfield role who could enable them to turn defence into attack in a split second. That is the French international who is the subject of these 1000 words.
The Leicester story is one of a counterattacking masterclass that was stopped by no one. No team could come to grips with the obvious method of winning possession – often by Kanté – then launching maniacally quick counters – often by Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy – to devastating effect. All of that began with the breakthrough season for the man coming from Caen. He registered an outrageous 3.72 tackles per 90 minutes (1st), 4.64 interceptions (1st), and 0.33 blocks, third most ball recoveries for an outfield player. That standout ball winning performance laid the foundation for the near perfect execution of the Leicester plan to win the league playing small team ball. The difference? N’Golo Kanté aided by Daniel Drinkwater.
His ball winning enabled Mahrez and Vardy to have career seasons, and without him they have not come close to their outputs of last season thus far. Mahrez is a fine player but without Kanté, he would do well to go to a more possessive team that would afford him enough touches to display the often-mesmeric dribbling he displayed last season, because in that sense he is like Angel Di Maria. They can be devastating but will give the ball away a lot and frustrate in pursuit of greatness. Either that or find another Kanté. Good luck with that.
Mahrez was able to register a goal every 180 minutes last season compared to a goal every 450 this term. His assists have plummeted from 0.33 to 0.13 every 90 minutes. His dribbles are also much lower and yet he has completed more passes. The difference? Almost all his passes were forward ones last season. That was so because of the position in which he took possession and the positioning of the opposition. They were many times at the start of counter attacks and that is what cannot be exploited with as great an effect without Kanté. From a league leading 15 combined goals from counters and penalties last season, Leicester have gone to a combined five from 17 games this season. This is on pace for roughly five lower than last season.
Most telling is how far they have fallen in tackles and interceptions. Their league ranks last season in tackles and interceptions were second and first, respectively. Those are down to 15th and 10th in 2016/17 and that is the main reason Leicester have reverted to type this season. Teams haven’t suddenly ‘figured out’ counterattacking football – see Chelsea – and the many others who have been using it for decades.
No Blues, Only Joy
The Chelsea impact is a different one but the exact spirit is there. Chelsea began the season playing with a back four, something of an experiment for manager Antonio Conte as he came to grips with his squad and the Premier league. The results weren’t great. With Kanté at the base of midfield and the defensive minded Nemanja Matić asked to operate in a more attacking role, Chelsea stumbled, and there were whispers of Conte out. Ten points from six games was hardly cause for panic but a 3-0 loss to Arsenal set in motion a change that would again prove a breeding ground for Kanté’s impact and releasing any shackles from Eden Hazard. Instantly all his defensive markers of success improved dramatically as shown in the graphic below.
Interceptions, passes, tackles all skyrocketed. More importantly and materially, his ball winning capacity and provision of defensive stability became the basis of a clean sheet juggernaut. Since that embarrassing surrender to the Gunners, Chelsea have kept nine clean sheets out of 11 EPL matches, conceding once each to Tottenham and Man City, hardly the minnows. There have been three 1-0 victories within that time span but also four occasions of the Blues putting at least three past their opponents. This steel prompted the Man United manager to both compliment and ironically call out Chelsea for being difficult to beat because they are so defensive. But…digression.
Overall defensive statistics for the French international are by no means as monstrous (second most ball recoveries for an outfield player, fourth most interceptions and third most tackles still), but in a more controlling team such as Chelsea, his passing has flourished. The 5’6.5 Blue has completed the second highest number of passes in the EPL, albeit a distance behind runaway leader Jordan Henderson, with 89% accuracy. Not bad for the man who began his European journey in the Boulogne reserves in 2010.
Caen you believe how far he has come? Happy holidays. #punmaster