N'Golo Kante has been one of the most influential players in English soccer’s recent history, capturing back-to-back Premier League titles with Leicester (2016) and Chelsea (2017), and was the rock in the midfield of France’s World Cup-winning team in Russia.
So what has Sarri done with Kante upon arriving at Stamford Bridge? Change his position, of course.
Among the most notable aspects of the opening two weeks of the Premier League season has been the attacking role that Kante has taken up for Chelsea in its wins over Huddersfield and Arsenal.
With Italy international Jorginho having followed Sarri to Chelsea from Napoli and become the anchorman in the team’s three-man midfield, many wondered how this would impact on Kante – a diminutive and dynamic player who has mastered the role of shielding a defense with his timely tackling and positional play.
Well, Kante has instead switched to being one of the two more attack-minded center midfielders in front of Jorginho. He scored against Huddersfield on the opening weekend – only his third league goal for Chelsea in a little over two years at the London club – and frequently found himself in the opposition penalty area in an open game against Arsenal that Chelsea won 3-2 on Saturday.
“I play a little bit more forward,” the 27-year-old Kante said. “I try to find the striker, to be more offensive, to cause problems for the opponents. I need to adapt in this role.”
So does Chelsea.
From playing a 3-4-3 formation under previous manager Antonio Conte, Chelsea is now deploying in a 4-3-3 formation under Sarri. Crucially, the defense is now protected by an artist in Jorginho instead of a workhorse in Kante. It showed against Arsenal, which poured forward in the first half and created a string of chances.
With Marcos Alonso still charging forward from left back and the occasionally error-prone David Luiz back in favor under Sarri and one of the two center backs, there are likely to be goals at both ends of the field when Chelsea plays this season.
This is a gamble from Sarri, removing a player who is the best in his position in the Premier League – teammates have repeatedly said Kante does the work of two men as a defensive midfielder – and fielding him in an unusual role. Especially since Kante lacks the composure, accuracy and long-range shot of a typical attacking midfielder in front of goal.
But it is clear Sarri wants more of an on-the-ball player to begin the team’s attacks at the base of the midfield. Jorginho has settled quickly and he has looked good in possession, but he was overrun at times against Arsenal and in the 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the season-opening Community Shield.
It remains to be seen if Sarri’s tactical switch will help propel Chelsea into a genuine title contender again.
N'Golo Kante might just be the best midfielder in the world, and he might just be leaving Chelsea for Paris Saint-Germain in the coming days or weeks, as French newspaper Le Parisien has reported that the defending Ligue 1 champions are in “advanced negotiations” over a mega-bucks contract with the World Cup winner.
The report goes so far as to say that a “provisional contract” has already been agreed. “Provisional,” in this instance, means there has likely been little — if any — contact between the two clubs thus far.
One major sticking point remains: following last summer’s outlandish spending spree, in which they shelled out nearly $500 million to sign Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, PSG are in serious danger of failing to comply with financial regulations set forth by UEFA and could/would be banned from European competition should they fail to achieve compliance.
The likes of Angel Di Maria, Goncalo Guedes, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Jese Rodriguez and Alphonse Areola have had their names floated as possible departures to recoup the necessary funds before paying another fee of (presumably) over $100 million.
After helping the Blues to the Premier League title two seasons ago (and doing the same with Leicester City three campaigns gone by), Kante was powerless in saving Chelsea from themselves in 2017-18. They finished fifth in the PL and failed to qualify for this season’s Champions League.
Given his age — 27 — it’s wholly understandable that Kante would prioritize playing in club soccer’s top competition (while also making even more money) every season going forward. Throw in the fact that uncertainty is the only certainty at Stamford Bridge these days, and trading west London for Paris — where Kante was born — starts to sounds pretty good, pretty quickly.
More often than not, in the modern game, high-stakes tournament soccer games are played in a cagey, cautious manner with teams afraid to risk elimination, believing that the negative pitfalls of conceding goals often outweigh the reward of creating chances on the offensive end.
The 2018 World Cup final was not that. Mostly. I think.
Croatia and France matched up in Moscow, Russia to determine who would be engraved into soccer immortality on Sunday, and fans were treated to undoubtedly one of the weirdest games ever played on such a grand scale. We’ve had 72 hours to digest the final result, and it seems to make less sense the longer one chews. Six total goals were scored over the 90 minutes, and France scored four of them. Yet, every piece of postgame analysis and every statistical scan of the match tells us just how wildly absurd that is.
First, Croatia dominated France in every attacking statistical category. Croatia out-passed France 440-198 and out-possessed them 65.5-34.5. They out-passed France in the attacking third 99-28 and in the penalty area 14-5. They created 11 chances to France’s 4. They attempted 14 shots to France’s seven. Six Croatians completed more passes than anyone on the French team.
Farther than any one particular number the statistical review could bring you, here is one image that speaks louder than any words or numbers can:
Not only did the Croatians wipe the French off the passing leaderboard, but only one French combination appears on the list – goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to striker Olivier Giroud. In one word: HOOF.
To reinforce this point, the French attempted 55 long balls to Croatia’s 33. Upon closer inspection, we find an even bigger discrepancy. Of the French long balls attempted, only four of them were square across the pitch. Almost all of them were vertical. Meanwhile, over half the Croatian long balls were attempted square across the pitch, meaning they were used to switch flanks and shift possession, not to launch forward and bypass the midfield. Visual evidence:
When you really think about it, this tactic is not terribly surprising. France knew that Croatia possessed one of the best – if not the best – midfield in the entire World Cup field with Luka Modric spearheading the more box-to-box style of Ivan Rakitic and defensive cover Marcelo Brozovic. Bypassing that trio was a relatively straightforward tactic, and it allowed France to utilize their strength of pace and aerial prowess more effectively. Still, it’s striking to see a team loaded with such sheer talent utilize a tactic more often reserved for less talented underdogs taking on the Goliaths of the world.
Still, it worked. Or did it?
Maybe the most jarring statistic from this game:
xG map for the World Cup Final. Very hard to say this was an impressive team performance by #FRA, but Umtiti and Varane prevented #CRO from creating clear chances and Mbappe and Pogba made the needed plays in attack. Individual talent won out. pic.twitter.com/oMfePQ6V1R
Expected goals isn’t the greatest tool to summarize a single 90-minute outcome, since it is a statistic far better deployed over a much larger sample size than a single match, but it remains stunning that France generated just 0.3 xG in this contest. They created almost nothing up front. Their two open-play goals both came on speculative shots from outside the box that slid by a hapless Danijel Subasic who failed to even challenge the attempts. Pogba’s shot generated a 0.07 xG, while Mbappe’s carried just a 0.03 xG. Still, France put six of its seven shots on target and didn’t miss the frame once, and that persistence paid off as Subasic was uninspired.
Croatia high-pressed France early, and that early turbo produced one of the more stunning results of the entire tournament: it neutralized the world’s best defensive midfielder and potentially most valuable formational cornerstone N'Golo Kante. The 27-year-old rock completed just eight passes – two of them were forward, while just one landed in the attacking half of the pitch – it went square. He was 1/3 tackling, including a failed tackle through the middle and one in France’s own penalty area. He had just four ball recoveries, his second-lowest mark of the tournament. He committed three fouls, drawing a yellow card (that, in fairness, was extremely harsh). With Kante now timid playing on a yellow, he was yanked before the hour mark, and France finished with a 63% pass completion rate, by far their lowest of the tournament.
Kylian Mbappe, meanwhile, was unquestionably France’s best outlet as he has proven all tournament. His bursts of energy continually troubled the Croatians, nearly punishing them for their forward-thinking mindset on a host of occasions. The Young Player of the Tournament was the best player on the pitch, despite Croatia’s perceived dominance on the ball. He was aided by Paul Pogba‘s brilliance, with the Manchester United midfielder feeding Mbappe continually with deliciously weighted through-balls.
And yet, the difference in this match came down to defending and, quite frankly, luck. As Caley implies in the tweet above, simply put, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane outplayed Domagoj Vida, who had been one of the best center-backs in the tournament prior to the final. While Croatia passed France out of possession, their only good chance was the Mandzukic goal on the Lloris howler, which carried a huge 0.54 xG value. Take that goalkeeping mistake out, and Croatia generated just 0.7 xG throughout the entire match.
In short: the best chance on either end came on a goalkeeping mistake from a Golden Glove contender.
The luck factor played a huge role as well. France’s first goal was entirely generated via luck, with Griezmann drawing a phantom foul leading to a Mario Mandzukic own-goal with Pogba offside, carrying an extremely unfortunate deflection past a wrong-footed Subasic. That left Croatia chasing the game, although they seldom looked truly rattled. Still, France was able to defend in numbers with the lead, and that helped alleviate some pressure brought on by the high Croatian press.
None of this is to diminish France’s achievement and accomplishment, which ranks among the best in history. In the end, France manager Didier Deschamps favored pragmatism over flair, and he delivered the goods. He molded his team to his players rather than the other way around, a rare approach in today’s game of tactical nuances. It is almost better that France prevailed despite the adversity it faced, rather than prevailing with such dominance that it avoided facing adversity at all. Still, the duality of the statistical analysis juxtaposed with the actual result presents us with one of the more wild and nonsensical soccer games ever played in such a high-stakes environment, and the fans are the real winners.
Yes, Antoine Griezmann is a midfielder, but he’s a fourth forward if N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are at their very best. Croatia’s midfield triangle has been responsible for much of its World Cup success, and will need to keep that up if it hopes to collect an upset.
Mandzukic renews acquaintances with La Liga CBs…
Two goals in the Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid, one the year before in the final, and an assist in that UCL run-up versus Barcelona.
So, yes, Real’s Raphael Varane and Barca’s Samuel Umtiti have tangled with him a time or two. And the big Croatian striker Mandzukic really seems to be rounding into form.
…And Giroud versus Lovren and Co.
Olivier Giroud has yet to score in the tournament, but sleeping on his industrious performance up top is a mistake. Dejan Lovren has branded himself “one of the best defenders in the world” based on this tournament and his Champions League run with Liverpool.
If France needs to whip crosses toward Giroud, we’d expect things could look a bit like the below highlight reel. Check around the 1:00 mark of this video: