Leicester City’s incredible title win of last season was built upon a sound defensive setup and swift counter-attacking. N’Golo Kanté proved crucial to their style of play, earning a move to Chelsea for his exceptional performances in the holding role. And, due to the Frenchman’s success, more attention has been paid to the defensive midfield position from a tactical standpoint in the 2016/17 Premier League campaign.
Just as Claude Makélélé created his own unique ‘Makélélé role’ with his displays for Chelsea between 2003 and 2008, Kanté’s showings for Leicester and now Chelsea have led to an increasing emphasis on the importance of a ‘Kanté type’ – a player capable of harrying, covering, tackling and pressuring – in central midfield.
Idrissa Gueye was, in the eyes of many, a natural successor to Kanté at Leicester. However, Everton won the race to sign the Senegalese from Aston Villa last summer. Triggering a release clause upon Villa’s relegation, the Toffees reportedly secured Gueye’s signature for the bargain transfer fee of £7.1 million. And since the move, the player has not disappointed.
With his combination of tactical, technical and athletic traits, the 26 year-old has reconfirmed his place among the Premier League’s finest defensive midfielders this season. But exactly how does he compare to his positional peers?
When it comes to winning the ball, Gueye is statistically the best performer in the Premier League at the present moment. He has averaged an astonishing 4.8 tackles per game since joining Everton, putting him well ahead of the second-best player in this category, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, who has averaged 3.7 tackles per game.
With his mobility, Gueye is able to cover ground extremely quickly. As a result, he poses a threat to any midfielder who goes near him with the ball at feet. In this respect, the Everton man is similar to Kanté, whose energy and speed allows him to close down consistently and immediately.
Kanté, however, lags just behind Henderson on 3.6 tackles per game. The Liverpool man was not considered a defensive midfielder before this term, though Jürgen Klopp has often used him as a midfield pivot. And, with his combative spirit and aggression, the Englishman has performed well in the role from a defensive standpoint.
Southampton’s Oriol Romeu has also established himself as a fine defensive midfielder in the Premier League this season. The Barcelona youth product is more physical than Gueye, Henderson and Kanté, and is able to out-muscle opponents with ease. And, while not as quick to press, he has averaged a very respectable 3.4 tackles per game this term.
Top five Premier League defensive midfielders by tackles per game
- IDRISSA GUEYE, Everton (4.8)
- Jordan Henderson, Liverpool (3.7)
- N’Golo Kanté, Chelsea (3.6)
- Oriol Romeu, Southampton (3.4)
- Danny Drinkwater, Leicester (3.3)
READING THE GAME
Directly engaging an opponent is just one aspect of a defensive midfielder’s role without the ball. It is important to know when and how to close down, as well as the fundamentals of winning a tackle, in order to dispossess the opposition. However, it is just as vital to know where to position oneself so as to block forward passes, support the press and intercept possession of the ball.
When it comes to reading the game, few defensive midfielders are as intelligent as Kanté. The 25-year-old is highly aware of where to position himself in order to cut out passes, as shown by the fact he has made more interceptions per game (2.4) than any other holding midfielder in the Premier League this term.
Gueye lies just behind Kanté in this respect, having averaged 2.3 interceptions per game as part of a midfield duet or trident at Everton alongside the likes of Gareth Barry, Tom Davies and Morgan Schneiderlin.
Romeu is level with Gueye on 2.3 interceptions per game. Usually, the Spaniard is the deepest player in Southampton’s midfield line, forming a protective barrier in front of the back four, which perhaps explains why he is so often called upon to break up opposition attacks. Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin is also equal with Gueye in this area, something resulting from the fact he has been his team’s only regularly available, consistent defensive midfield option.
Top five Premier League defensive midfielders by interceptions per game:
- N’Golo Kanté, Chelsea (2.4)
- Francis Coquelin, Arsenal (2.3)
- IDRISSA GUEYE, Everton (2.3)
- Oriol Romeu, Southampton (2.3)
- Claudio Yacob, West Brom (1.9)
ON THE BALL
As much as a defensive midfielder must offer defensive protection in the form of intelligent reading of the game and an ability to dispossess the opposition, they cannot afford to ignore the attacking side of the game.
Now, more than ever before, teams are cohesive units where each player must be capable of both defending and attacking. Thus, deep-lying midfielders must also be able to pass efficiently, if not creatively, as well as resist pressure using ball control, awareness and physical strength.
When it comes to involvement in the possession phase, no other Premier League defensive midfielder can rival Henderson. While not the most technically refined, he has been integral to Liverpool’s build-up this season, averaging 85.7 passes per game. In addition, 1.3 per game are ‘key passes’, according to WhoScored.com’s statistics.
Unsurprisingly, considering he is part of a Manchester City team that tend to dominate ball possession, Fernandinho is second to Henderson in terms of passes completed, averaging 67.6 per game. However, when it comes to pass accuracy, neither of Henderson or Fernandinho can rival Kante, who completes 88.2 per cent of his passes.
Tottenham’s Victor Wanyama is also a composed presence on the ball. On average, he has completed 1.3 dribbles per game—more than any other holding midfielder in the top tier of English football. Kante and Gueye are the closest to him, with their tendency for the occasional forward foray shown by their averaging 1.1 and 1 dribbles per game respectively.
Top five Premier League defensive midfielders by average passes per game:
- Jordan Henderson, Liverpool (85.7)
- Fernandinho, Manchester City (67.6)
- N’Golo Kanté, Chelsea (62)
- Danny Drinkwater, Leicester (61.4)
- IDRISSA GUEYE, Everton (60.5)
Defensively, Idrissa Gueye is just above Kanté when it comes to breaking up opposition attacks, winning tackles and making interceptions, with Romeu just behind the pair. Meanwhile, in possession the Everton man is a steady passer, though he cannot compete with the likes of Henderson, Fernandinho, Kanté and Wanyama. However, this is made up for by the fact that, along with Wanyama and Kanté, he is good at resisting pressure and breaking beyond the opposition’s midfield line.