“N’Golo Kante is by far the best player in the Premier League this season.”
Those were the words of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2016, when Kante and Leicester City were in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in football history.
It was Kante’s performances for the Foxes in that title-winning campaign that prompted Chelsea to pay £30 million for his services.
The Frenchman has since gone on to make that fee look like a bargain. He helped Chelsea win the title in his first season, putting in a string of displays that were worthy of the PFA Player of the Year award.
Kante was the best midfielder in the Premier League two seasons ago, his indefatigable style and non-stop running earning him a Ballon d’Or nomination in October 2017.
While Chelsea’s defence of their title ended in disappointment - they finished fifth in 2017-18, with Antonio Conte losing his job at the end of the campaign - Kante would still go on to win the club’s Player of the Year award.
And then Maurizio Sarri arrived. And nothing has been the same since.
New manager, new position
Sarri brought Jorginho with him from Napoli and the 60-year-old decided that it would be the new arrival, not Kante, who would play in front of the defence.
Kante has instead played further forward, with Sarri asking him to contribute in the attacking phases.
It seems nonsensical to move one of the best defensive midfielders in the world out of his preferred position - Kante now starts on the right of a midfield three - but Sarri has stuck with his ideology, despite the criticism.
“The world of football thinks that Kante should play as a deep lying midfield player but in the world of Sarri, he doesn’t, he wants to play someone else,” former Arsenal defender Martin Keown said on BT Sport in January.
“He’s the best midfield player and he’s playing out of position. He looks ordinary in this Chelsea team.”
So, what impact has the position switch had on Kante?
Using Premier League and WhoScored statistics, GiveMeSport has compared Kante’s numbers from each of his four seasons in the top flight.
The 27-year-old is currently on pace to set all-time lows for tackles per game (1.8), tackle success (51 per cent), interceptions per game (1.4) and recoveries per game (6.8) - four areas which he specialises in.
This is what Sarri is missing out on by asking Kante to play in more advanced areas.
It’s startling to note how less impactful Kante is in the defensive aspects of the game now than he was during the 2015-16 season at Leicester.
He recorded 4.7 tackles per game during that fairytale season at a success rate of 71 per cent.
His interceptions per game and recoveries per game was 4.2 and 8.8 respectively. It’s easy to see why he was named in the PFA Team of the Year - he was truly sublime in helping Leicester upset the odds.
Has it been worth it?
Now playing further forwards, you would be looking for Kante to currently be in the midst of his best season statistically in the attacking areas.
He’s already scored his highest number of league goals in a season - the World Cup winner has netted three times, better than the one he managed in each of his first three seasons in England.
Kante has also recorded four assists, the same number he managed in the entire 2015-16 season and more than he had in his first two seasons for Chelsea.
Kante is making more key passes per game than he ever has done before.
Meanwhile, his 0.77 shots per game is the same as it was in the 2016-17 campaign - but significantly higher than it was in his one season at Leicester.
Playing further forward opens Kante up to lose the ball more - particularly as he isn’t the most adept player with the ball at his feet.
And we’re seeing the impact of that. He has been dispossessed on average 1.7 times per game under Sarr.
That number was 0.7 when he was at Leicester.
So, while Kante is having more of an impact than he ever has offensively, has it really been worth it?
When you see the drop off in tackles, interceptions and recoveries, it seems unlikely.
Sarri insisted in November that Kante doesn't have the technical ability to play the holding role in his system.
At this point it seems doubtful that that view is going to change.
And he's more than ready to deal with the criticism that continues to come his way.News Now - Sport News