Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri inherited possibly the best defensive midfielder in the world when he took over the team in the offseason.
N’Golo Kante has been one of the most influential players in English soccer’s recent history, capturing back-to-back Premier League titles with Leicester (2016) and Chelsea (2017), and was the rock in the midfield of France’s World Cup-winning team in Russia.
So what has Sarri done with Kante upon arriving at Stamford Bridge? Change his position, of course.
Among the most notable aspects of the opening two weeks of the Premier League season has been the attacking role that Kante has taken up for Chelsea in its wins over Huddersfield and Arsenal.
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With Italy international Jorginho having followed Sarri to Chelsea from Napoli and become the anchorman in the team’s three-man midfield, many wondered how this would impact on Kante — a diminutive and dynamic player who has mastered the role of shielding a defense with his timely tackling and positional play.
Well, Kante has instead switched to being one of the two more attack-minded center midfielders in front of Jorginho. He scored against Huddersfield on the opening weekend — only his third league goal for Chelsea in a little over two years at the London club — and frequently found himself in the opposition penalty area in an open game against Arsenal that Chelsea won 3-2 on Saturday.
“I play a little bit more forward,” the 27-year-old Kante said. “I try to find the striker, to be more offensive, to cause problems for the opponents. I need to adapt in this role.”
So does Chelsea.
From playing a 3-4-3 formation under previous manager Antonio Conte, Chelsea is now deploying in a 4-3-3 formation under Sarri. Crucially, the defense is now protected by an artist in Jorginho instead of a workhorse in Kante. It showed against Arsenal, which poured forward in the first half and created a string of chances.
With Marcos Alonso still charging forward from left back and the occasionally error-prone David Luiz back in favor under Sarri and one of the two center backs, there are likely to be goals at both ends of the field when Chelsea plays this season.
This is a gamble from Sarri, removing a player who is the best in his position in the Premier League — teammates have repeatedly said Kante does the work of two men as a defensive midfielder — and fielding him in an unusual role. Especially since Kante lacks the composure, accuracy and long-range shot of a typical attacking midfielder in front of goal.
But it is clear Sarri wants more of an on-the-ball player to begin the team’s attacks at the base of the midfield. Jorginho has settled quickly and he has looked good in possession, but he was overrun at times against Arsenal and in the 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the season-opening Community Shield.
It remains to be seen if Sarri’s tactical switch will help propel Chelsea into a genuine title contender again.
Other positional changes at the start of the Premier League:
BERNARDO SILVA (Manchester City)
Portugal international Bernardo Silva mostly played as a back-up to right winger Raheem Sterling in his first year at Manchester City last season. It appears Pep Guardiola has other ideas this season, having fielded Silva in a central role in the Community Shield and in a 2-0 win over Arsenal on the opening weekend of the Premier League. With Kevin De Bruyne out injured for potentially three months, Bernardo Silva could see more game time in center midfield alongside another Silva, David.
GYLFI SIGURDSSON (Everton)
Like Bernardo Silva, Gylfi Sigurdsson endured an often frustrating first year at a new club last season after joining Everton from Swansea, rarely played in his best position — the No. 10 role behind the striker — and instead playing on the left or even being on the bench. With Wayne Rooney leaving Everton to move to Major League Soccer, Sigurdsson is playing centrally again.
WILFRIED ZAHA (Crystal Palace)
Wilfried Zaha has long played as a winger, but was sometimes deployed as a central striker toward the end of last season by Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson. It looks like he is there to stay — at least as long as he is at Palace — having started the season up front again alongside Christian Benteke.
More AP Premier League coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/PremierLeague and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80