For those who would like to see N’Golo Kante restored to his preferred prime central midfield berth, the message is simple.
It is not going to happen. Not on Maurizio Sarri’s watch. To demand Sarri panders to Kante is to gravely misunderstand the Chelsea manager’s ambitions for his new team.
And, this is, we should remember still a new team. Thursday night’s fixture against PAOK Salonika is only the 20th of Sarri’s reign and the portents are, generally, hugely encouraging.
Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri keeps an eye on N’Golo Kante during training on Wednesday
Kante had an evening to forget as Chelsea were beaten 3-1 by rivals Tottenham on Saturday
Chelsea are in the thick of a battle for the top four and that is the level of a squad that lacks a commanding centre half and a world-class striker.
Yet Saturday’s defeat against Tottenham has provoked cause for introspection and concern both in the dressing room and on the terraces.
The role of Kante is particularly stirring the senses. In a small room at Chelsea’s training ground on Wednesday, there was a sense of shock as Sarri became, most probably, the first peer or manager to criticise Kante since he appeared in English football in 2015.
The essence of the issue lies in Sarri’s desire to implement a possession-based game in which £50million summer signing Jorginho, or his deputy Cesc Fabregas, play as the central pivot in a three-man midfield. This forces Kante to play in a wider role with greater attacking freedom.
‘I want to play a very technical player as a central midfielder — Jorginho or Fabregas,’ said Sarri. ‘I don’t want Kante in this position. Kante, in the last match, wanted to solve the match after the first 15 minutes but in the wrong way.
Kante excelled for Leicester and helped them win the Premier League title in his only season
He then moved to Chelsea and played a key role as Antonio Conte’s men became champions
‘He lost his position. He attacked the other box too much and I think this is not one of the best characteristics of Kante, but it was only a reaction to the difficulties.’
Reading between the lines, Sarri appeared to suggest that Kante abdicated tactical responsibility, despite his good intentions.
Clearly, Kante is struggling with the demands of his new role. Both Leicester and Chelsea’s title-winning campaigns under Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte were born out of counter-attacking football, where Kante’s capacity for intercepting play and launching attacks was a prized commodity.
Now, however, Chelsea dominate possession so the need for Kante’s most crucial assets depreciates.
As an example, Chelsea had 61 per cent of the ball in the defeat at Tottenham on Saturday, compared to 32 per cent in the same fixture – which they won 2-1 – in the early months of last season.
Sarri criticised Kante’s performance against Spurs and insisted he cannot play deep in midfield
The Chelsea boss prefers to play £50million summer signing Jorginho as his central pivot
It has been suggested that Kante and Jorginho should switch roles but Sarri believes that the Frenchman lacks the technical proficiency required for the deep-lying playmaker role Jorginho has mastered.
Kante is also not a sitting midfielder in the mould of Claude Makelele – he is a shuttler who rattles between the two boxes.
The flip-side, of course, is that Jorginho does not possess the speed or defensive awareness to cope with some of the Premier League’s most dangerous attacking threats when they float between the lines.
His speed was chronically expose by Son Heung-min against Tottenham and even the impact of his technical quality was diminished by the close attention of Dele Alli. Sarri’s system, therefore, has flaws whichever way he turns.
Kante played a major role in France’s triumph at last summer’s World Cup in Russia
The former Leicester star recently signed a new contract worth £290,000 a week at Chelsea
The Tottenham game, it should be said, was not the first time this Chelsea system has creaked. Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton all came close to ending the unbeaten run even earlier.
To the layman, it certainly seems peculiar that Chelsea should have a player of Kante’s quality – a man who this year won the World Cup and only this month signed a new five-year contract worth £290,000-per-week – and fail to maximise his talent.
Yet this is his fate and it is now to be seen as to whether Sarri can coax confidence and an end product from Kante in an unfamiliar role.