Rumours are swirling around N’Golo Kanté and Paris Saint-Germain, with the French champions understandably interested in the two-time Premier League winner.
It provides a good moment to look at how Chelsea’s central midfield has evolved in the past two years, and what it would look like if PSG get their way and lure the Frenchman to the Parc des Princes.
Kanté’s output has barely changed in terms of his playing style. Here are his personas for 2016/17 and 2017/18.
While Kanté has stayed much the same player, it’s what’s around him that has changed substantially.
In Chelsea’s title-winning 2016/17 campaign, with Nemanja Matić alongside him, he had a player who was able to play in a broadly similar way to himself.
Together, they provided the bedrock on which the rest of the team could build their attacks. The wing-backs and wide forwards were free to get forward in the knowledge that the centre of the park was well-marshalled by the twin central midfielders.
Matić was less defensive than Kanté, but in terms of the priority of his game, that was still his secondary concern and this is a contrast to the players the Frenchman lined up alongside in 2017/18.
Tiémoué Bakayoko wasn’t the like-for-like replacement for Matić that some assumed when they signed the imposing midfielder from Monaco, which is why Chelsea opted for Kanté and Cesc Fàbregas as a central duo for much of the campaign.
Fàbregas, despite his age, performed above expectations. He made 3.57 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, pretty much identical to Matić’s 3.53 the season before.
However, his priorities were divided and more often lay in the attacking sphere, in a way that the Serbian’s had not.
Bakayoko’s persona radar makes clear how dissimilar he was from the other central midfielders around him. It should be noted, though, that these differences may have meant that Antonio Conte played him in a different role, giving him a different radar shape, rather than the differences in preferred style directly leading to the rounder persona radar.
Life without Kanté?
Kanté emerging as a Paris Saint-Germain transfer target leaves Chelsea in an interesting position.
They seem unlikely to be able to play the same style of football without the former Leicester City favourite in the team, as the combination of their other central midfielders is vastly different to what the Frenchman offers.
However, it’s worth remembering the type of player Bakayoko was before he arrived at Chelsea. In his 2016/17 season for Monaco he was a completely different presence, a high-volume defensive midfielder who made 5.14 tackles and interceptions per 90.
Could a Fàbregas-Bakayoko duo work for Chelsea in the Kanté-Matić mould?
Kanté’s touch is under-rated, and this combined with Bakayoko’s tendency to drive forward when he receives the ball could be why his game is more characterised by build-up passing than Bakayoko’s (at both Monaco and Chelsea).
Even ignoring the issue of Fàbregas’ age and wearying legs, there would still likely be a disconnect between the two, the pair’s skill-sets failing to mesh in the way that Kanté and Matic’s did so well.
And then there is the elephant in the room – Conte himself. Although things have gone quiet on this front of late, the Italian’s future remains shroud in uncertainty, which isn’t going down well with some of the players.
“Yeah, I want to know,” Eden Hazard said recently when asked about Conte’s future. “I want to know, but like I say I am focused on the World Cup.”
One thing is for certain; if Kanté was to leave Chelsea then new signings would need to be made. The Frenchman played 2998 minutes in the league in 2017/18, as well as regular appearances in cup competitions, and Chelsea simply do not possess the depth in the position to fill that.
The team’s title-winning tactic brought the footballing world into a new era of the 3-4-3 but, for Chelsea, that era could soon be coming to an end.