The Categorical Imperative of Kante

There’s really nothing simpler in football than understanding what to do with N’Golo Kante: you start him in every match and you play him right in front of your back four. In his last year at Leicester and his first at Chelsea, Kante was probably the most disruptive defensive midfielder in the world. He ran so much and so hard and so widely all over the pitch that his heat maps looked like Rothko paintings: great big blocks of red. When the other team had the ball he chased said ball until he caught it, then snatched it and passed it to one of his teammates. He played one role, and he played it as well as anyone has since Claude Makelele.

And yet now Chelsea can’t find a manager who understands what to do with Kante. Sarri tried to turn him into an attacking midfielder. In the first game of the season, earlier today, Lampard didn’t start him and then brought hin on — for Jorginho! — after his side had gone down 0–3. Kante is of no use when you’re down 0–3. The point of having Kante is to prevent yourself from going down 0–3.

As far as I can tell, Sarri wanted Jorginho to be his regista, and so preferred not to have that space crowded by another midfielder. So rather than move Jorginho up the pitch, he moved Kante up. That wasn’t the best solution, in my opinion, but there was a logic to it. It remains to be seen what logic, if any, Lampard will use, but my advice to him is: If you don’t want to play from behind, put Kante in and just let him do his thing.

the home of clownshoes defending

That would be the Premier League, says Jonathan Wilson. He cites several certain or possible causes, among them the uncertainties caused by rosters always in flux and basic “flaws in concentration and structure” — though the latter point is an explanation that calls for further explanation, because why in the world should such flaws exist at this level of player ability and coaching expertise? Are players not being coached well, or are they simply ignoring their coaches?

Two other major points that Wilson makes: first,

There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.

And second,

To an extent, the defensive chaos is the result of changes in the laws of the game. It’s harder to defend now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Back lines cannot simply push up in the knowledge that any opposing player in behind them will be called offside. Shinji Okazaki’s goal against Arsenal, for instance, would not have counted under any but the most recent interpretation of the law: he was offside as the cross came in but not as Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal. That means both that modern defenders have to be much more capable of reacting to specific circumstances and that they sit deeper, leaving more room in midfield for skilful players to create.

At the same time, cynical fouls are punished far more harshly now than ever before. It’s still possible for teams to break up games with rotational fouling around the halfway line, but it’s far harder than it used to be. There’s almost an expectation now with every foul that it will bring a booking. Intimidation has all but vanished from the game and it’s not possible for defenders to cover for a mistake by hauling down their opponent – or at least not more than once.

These are very important points, and I think they help us understand some of the major shortcomings, but I still have a few questions.

  1. If you look at the chart on this page, you’ll see the an actual rise in goals per game has been quite recent, and that the overall trend of the past decade has been only slightly upward (and of course remaining far below historic levels of scoring, established when defenders were free to intimidate attackers and balls were badly made but defensive tactics were primitive at best). So do we even have a truly meaningful trend here?
  2. Can we distinguish between errors made by defenders and those made by goalkeepers? On the Okazaki goal against Arsenal mentioned above, it’s true that the short back line Arsenal played that day couldn’t get above someone as small as Okazaki, but the bigger problem was Cech’s indecisiveness: he got himself caught betwixt and between and so could defend neither McGuire’s headed pass nor Okazaki’s headed shot.
  3. My personal observation of Premier League matches — I have no data yet — suggests that the most drastic defensive errors in the past couple of years have happened in set-piece situations. Liverpool are of course reliably catastrophic on set pieces, but Arsenal aren’t much better. Much of the time, it seems to me, the problem is that you get zonal marking schemes in which players understand the “zonal” part but not the “marking,” as when Arsenal players simply ignored Jamie Vardy as he ran to a point on the pitch where none of them happened already to be standing. I need to look into this more carefully when I have time, but if set-piece goals are indeed on the rise, it would be interesting to see how much of the recent overall increase in goals they account for.