Speaking ahead of Arsenal’s match against Premier League leaders Chelsea, Arsene Wenger expressed his admiration for one Blues midfielder. Admiration so high, he tried to sign the player. Twice.
“Have I looked to sign Kanté?” Wenger repeated at his pre-match press conference. “Yes. When he was in France and when he was at Leicester. I cannot explain everything [about why he preferred Chelsea] but it is quite obvious when you look at where he has gone. Was it the money? I do not want to talk about that. Transfers are transfers – you cannot explain absolutely everything.”
Wenger is known for his ability to find young talent in obscure places, and it’s clear he was aware of Kante’s abilities when he was with Caen in his early 20’s. Eventually, he went to Leicester City in the summer of 2015, and made history as he led them to the Premier League title as arguably the Foxes’ best player that season.
He has carried that form over to Chelsea, pairing with Nemanja Matic in an important holding and distributing role in front of Antonio Conte‘s three central defenders. Wenger believes the link between Leicester’s stunning season last year and Chelsea’s charge this campaign is clear.
“I feel Chelsea have found a better defensive balance since we beat then 3-0 at home in September,” Wenger said. “They are very good in transition. I watched their game against Liverpool and Kanté had a huge impact in their team. It’s no coincidence that they are in the position that they are and Leicester were in the position they were last season. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have also come back to very strong form compared to last season, so Chelsea are very efficient when they go forward.”
Kante’s passing was suspect in the draw with Liverpool, but his defensive prowess was monstrous as he made a stunning 14 successful tackles in 15 attempts.
For a lot of us, that meant delving into statistics and seeing what matched the eye test. Many started Googling the name “N'Golo Kante“, the dynamic disruptor who’d move to Chelsea in August.
He’s a household name now, with some personalities even arguing that he should buck the trend of Ballon d’Or nominees including only major statistic producers (There was a time when names like Fabio Cannavaro and Matthias Sammer claimed the honor, you know).
For our purposes, we’ll use a pair of advanced stats sites and the good ol’ eye test. (Of the sites we’re using, Squawka seems to skew toward high attack scores, while WhoScored tilts a bit toward the back, so life is good if a player hits both sites’ Top 50).
Before getting into our team — we promise no 10-picture, click-to-reveal-next stuff — some stats that stood out.
— Three players have had outstanding “short” seasons for different reasons.
Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi took a short spell to adjust to the Premier League after arriving in January, but has been the Foxes’ most influential player in their recent turnaround).
Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake essentially was the Cherries’ first-half success before heading back to Chelsea where Antonio Conte won’t move him ahead of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses (and that’s actually understandable as you’ll see below).
Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas just doesn’t feature a ton for Conte, but in limited time his per-90 stats on Squawka trail only Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez.
Ander Herrera (Manchester United, 7.44, 36.64) – Long-heralded at Athletic Bilbao, Herrera is finally showing what made him so sought. One odd stat that may be explained by his willingness to run to any situation: he’s very high in average times dribbled past.
Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton, 7.34, 20.57) – The best player in Aston Villa’s awful 2015-16, he’s been arguably as effective as N’Golo Kante. Seriously.
Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion) – Once the top player on a relegated QPR, Phillips is fifth in the Premier League in assists despite missing the last four matches with injury.
Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur, 7.41, 31.89) – Second in the PL in key passes, he doesn’t get the plaudits of English teammates Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The relationships are very symbiotic.
Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 7.44) – On an under-achieving team, Zaha’s statistics are wild. He’s the most-fouled player in the league, and attempts/completes the most dribbles in the PL. He gives the ball away a lot, too, but that happens when you’re the focal point of everything your team does in the attacking third.
Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, 30.54) – The Nigerian turns 21 in May, and has four goals and seven assists across all competitions.
“[Ibrahimovic] is a genius, he’s very intense because he wants to win everything, even football-tennis,” Herrera said to Radio MARCA.
“He assumes this role of doing or saying what he likes in front of the media because he does not care, he can say that he’ll score 30 goals or is the best because he can afford to.”
There’s certainly something to stature when it comes to saying what you feel (though on the other hand, being egotistical is rarely controversial. It’s not like Ibrahimovic is often railing on controversial soccer or social issues).
We’re sure there are plenty of players across all sports, casual and professional, who don’t understand hyper-competitive teammates, but we love a guy who doesn’t turn it down when it comes to on-the-field activities. Hopefully Ibrahimovic is the Jaromir Jagr of soccer.