“Ridiculous” was a word used by Frank Lampard to sum up N’Golo Kante last week – and with good reason.
The Chelsea midfielder is back fit, back in the side and more or less back to his best, having missed 16 Premier League matches last season.
Kante’s “quietly influential” form has helped Lampard’s side to a strong start to the season that has left some to bill Sunday’s derby clash with Tottenham as something of a title showdown – or at least a game that could well highlight which of the two has the best chance of dethroning Liverpool.
A win for either side will move them top of the table after 10 games, but Kante’s recent performances might just indicate Chelsea have the edge.
BACK WHERE HE BELONGS?
In 2018-19, Maurizio Sarri preferred Jorginho at the base of midfield, with Kante generally shifted to the right of a three.
The system was hardly a failure: Chelsea returned to the Champions League, won the Europa League and only lost the EFL Cup final on penalties to Manchester City. Few, though, ever thought it brought the best out of Kante.
Since taking charge last year, Lampard has shifted Kante back towards the middle and, as can be seen from his average touch maps, 2020-21 sees a full return for the France international as the midfield anchor.
N’Golo Kante’s touch maps by season, from 2018-19 (L) to 2020-21. The shift from the right-hand side towards the base of midfield is clear.
He is averaging 82 touches per 90 minutes in the Premier League, the highest figure he has ever posted for Chelsea, five more than in his title-winning debut season in 2016-17. He is also averaging 67 passes per game, more than he ever has before for the club.
In other words, Kante is very much at the heart of Lampard’s Chelsea.
He is also back to his exceptional defensive levels in 2020-21, averaging three interceptions per game – again the most in his Chelsea career – as well as three tackles, his highest figure under Lampard.
The caveat is his passes in the final third have dropped by an average of six per game compared to last season and by nine compared to 2018-19, but the creative talent at Lampard’s disposal means the burden of attacking is no longer on Kante’s shoulders.
HOJBJERG BATTLE AWAITS
If Chelsea’s form is based in part on the performances of Kante, Tottenham’s strong start to the season is very much built on the work of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
Signed from Southampton for a reported £15million fee, the 25-year-old has established himself as Jose Mourinho’s most important player behind the relentlessly brilliant Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.
Through nine rounds of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign, Hojbjerg had managed more touches (809), attempted more passes (695) and completed more passes (619) than any other midfielder in the competition. He has also got stuck into 29 tackles, the third-highest number for midfielders this term and four more than Kante.
Hojbjerg might not be a player of the Kante mold, but the two have had remarkably similar influences on their teams. Each has one assist in nine league starts, their passing accuracy practically matches (88.5 per cent for Kante, 89.1 for Hojbjerg), and they have made exactly the same number of recoveries (64).
Effective as they are without the ball, so much of Chelsea and Spurs’ good work with it also relies on these two.
Kante has started 139 open-play sequences this season, eclipsing Hojbjerg (111), but that is about as big a difference as you will find.
Of those sequences started by Kante, 13 have ended in a shot and two in a goal; for Hojbjerg, 11 have ended in a strike at goal and one has seen Spurs get on the scoresheet.
Indeed, in terms of involvements in open-play build-up, Kante has managed 423, only slightly up on Hojbjerg’s 415. Of those tallies, each player has seen 31 of those involvements end in a shot; when it comes to resulting in a goal, Hojbjerg edges Kante eight to three.
On Sunday, the winner of the battle for midfield control between these two could well swing the match in his side’s favour.