Leicester’s loss of N’Golo Kanté is indisputably Chelsea’s gain

Leicester City lost only one of their main men in the summer but the French midfielder, who faces his former club at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, has been missed

In mid-August, when it became clear that Riyad Mahrez was following in Jamie Vardy’s footsteps and staying at Leicester City, Claudio Ranieri was asked how many players he imagined he would lose in the wake of winning the Premier League title. “If I am honest, no one,” the manager said, frowning. “I thought everybody wanted to stay with Leicester and continue to fight. I made a mistake. One did want to go.”

N’Golo Kanté’s departure to Chelsea clearly took Ranieri by surprise. Even with a release clause in the Frenchman’s contract, Ranieri was confident that Kanté would stay, if only for one more season. There was the emotional pull that came with being part of the “band of brothers” who danced around Vardy’s kitchen, the lure of Champions League football – something that Chelsea were unable to offer – and the fact that Kanté, at the age of 25, had time on his side.

Kanté, however, had other ideas. He played what turned out to be his final game for Leicester at Stamford Bridge, in the 1-1 draw at the end of last season, and will be reunited with his former team-mates at the same venue on Saturday. It will be a reminder of how life used to be for Leicester and, at the same time, an opportunity for Kanté to deliver a performance that confirms what everyone knows: the Premier League champions miss him. Badly.

Signed from Caen for £5.6m, he was a revelation at Leicester, so much so that his industry and energy became a standing joke within the club. Ranieri predicted that Kanté would one day “cross the ball and score with a header”. Steve Walsh, the club’s former assistant manager, laughed about how Leicester “played three in midfield, Drinkwater in the middle with Kanté either side”, and Christian Fuchs posted mocked-up pictures of his team-mate’s recovery runs on social media, showing him scampering 657km across France on foot during Euro 2016.

In short, Kanté was something special at Leicester, almost a one-off with his indefatigable running, and so it hardly comes as a surprise that the champions have not been quite the same team without him. They miss the defensive screen that he provided in front of the back four and also his ability to pinch possession and provide the springboard to break with such alacrity.

Statistics confirm what most would suspect in a post-Kanté Leicester team. The average number of tackles and interceptions per game have fallen significantly, from 22 to 16 and 19 to 14 respectively, and Kanté’s departure for around £30m has contributed heavily to that. He averaged 4.7 tackles and 4.2 interceptions per game at Leicester – the highest in the Premier League in both categories. Daniel Amartey, who has been handed the task of trying to replace Kanté in the centre of Leicester’s midfield, averages 1.5 and 1.2 in comparison.

As for high-intensity running – sprints registered by Opta at above 25.2km/h – Kanté completed, on average, 56 of those per game at Leicester. Amartey, in contrast, is making 41.5 each match.

In fairness to Amartey, he is only 21, still maturing as a player and was not the man earmarked to fill Kanté’s boots. Nampalys Mendy arrived from Nice for £10m with that remit but the 24‑year‑old has played only 53 minutes of Premier League football after picking up an ankle injury against Arsenal in the second match of the season. But even if Mendy were fit, could he really be expected to match Kanté’s contribution?

Interestingly, Kanté is a slightly different player at Stamford Bridge. By virtue of the fact that he is now playing in a team who tend to dominate possession, he is more like the midfielder who featured for France at Euro 2016 than the one who won the league with Leicester. Kanté is still scurrying around and has been the best Chelsea midfielder by a distance, yet he is spending far more time with the ball at his feet. He has made 65 passes per game for them this season, as opposed to 39 at Leicester, and the corollary is that Kanté’s name is a fair way down the Premier League list when it comes to tackles (he has made fewer than Drinkwater) and interceptions (ranked 47th).

From Chelsea’s point of view it is about Kante being in the right place at the right time when possession does change hands, and by and large that has been the case, certainly in the early fixtures, including an outstanding debut against West Ham. The exception would be during the defeats against Liverpool and, in particular, Arsenal, when Kanté looked as lost as everyone else in a Chelsea shirt. At one point the cameras homed in on him being outpaced by Michael Oliver, the referee, when running back towards his own goal after Mesut Özil had turned him deep inside the Arsenal half.

That incident seemed like an aberration for Kanté, who is covering an extra 1,000m per game in a Chelsea shirt compared with last season, which seems remarkable. Maybe that increased running is down to Antonio Conte’s decision to sometimes deploy Kanté as the deep-lying midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation, leaving him looking a little isolated on occasions. Some Chelsea observers feel that Kanté could do with a midfield ally to work in tandem with, as was the case with Drinkwater at Leicester, although whether Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fàbregas or Mikel John Obi are cut out for that sort role is a matter of debate.

What is indisputable is that Leicester’s loss is Chelsea’s gain. The voice of the softly spoken man who proudly parked his Mini alongside the BMWs, Mercedes and Bentleys at Leicester’s training ground was barely heard during his 10 months with the club, yet his presence was felt everywhere in the team that defied those 5,000-1 odds. In fact Ranieri summed things up perfectly a little while ago when he said: “If Chelsea bought Kanté, it’s because he played as two players last season. The referee counted 11 but we were 12.”


Stuart James

The GuardianTramp

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