N’Golo Kante is Leicester City’s past but he is Chelsea’s future. The France midfielder will line up for his new team against his old one this afternoon, three months after giving up Champions League football to be part of Antonio Conte’s new project at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea are still finding their way this season, as Conte tries to impose his own “idea of football” on a squad which is used to something very different. It will take time and money to get there but there is no doubt that, whatever happens to anyone else, Kante will be part of it.
Conte spoke effusively at his Friday afternoon press conference about Kante and what he brings to the team. He even said that Kante’s stand-out mistake, against Arsenal, was down to his “generosity”, his good side. There can be no question that Kante is Conte’s favourite midfielder, even as he joked that he “did not know” why Kante had left Champions League football at Leicester for rebuilding Chelsea.
“N’Golo is an important player for the present, and for the future of Chelsea,” Conte said at Cobham. “We did a great buy to take him.”
Conte has used a 4-1-4-1 and a 3-4-3 system so far this season, and Kante has shown that he can operate in a central midfield three, in the former, or in a two, in the latter. If, as suspected, Conte hopes his Chelsea team will one day be able to play 4-2-4 then Kante would be left in a two with huge distances to cover. But the little Parisian would be more than able to do that.
“N’Golo has fantastic stamina and covers a lot of ground,” Conte said. “This is very important for the balance when you play offensive football, to have a player who recovers the ball back very well. N’Golo is this type of player, he’s a very good player.”
“He is a fantastic player who can play with three in midfield with two others, or in a two,” Conte explained. “He played in a two with Leicester last season and was very important. At Hull [in a 3-4-3] he played with Nemanja Matic together. In previous games [in a 4-1-4-1] he played with Matic and Oscar or Cesc Fabregas. But I think he can play in both styles. Above all, he always plays very well.”
While Kante has been one of Chelsea’s stand-out performers so far this season, there was one big visible error in the defeat at Arsenal. Kante pushed up and left space for Mesut Özil to run past him, as Arsenal tore through Chelsea. Even that, for Conte, happened because of one of Kante’s strengths, rather than weaknesses.
“In this situation Kante paid for his generosity,” Conte explained. “He went up late to stop the opponent, and Özil turned and passed him. But he went. I prefer he made a mistake through generosity than another type of mistake. I prefer that he went, than to stay and wait.”
If Conte could choose, he might want more than one Kante in his midfield, to make sure that as much ground is covered as possible. “We have only one, I think it’s enough,” he said. “This type of player, who puts the team before himself, I like a lot. I like this type of player. I want this type of player.” There will surely be more Kantes at Chelsea soon enough.