Since moving to west London this summer, Kante has quickly established himself as an integral part of Antonio Conte’s preferred starting XI. Arsene Wenger may well look on enviously—he’s on record about his admiration for his fellow Frenchman. However, he will feel reassured that he has enough midfield riches of his own—especially with new boy Granit Xhaka beginning to make his mark on the side.
Kante rose to prominence last season after his remarkable ability to break up play helped propel Leicester City to the unlikeliest of title successes. A good summer at Euro 2016 raised his profile even higher, and ultimately, Chelsea pounced to secure the defensive midfielder.
Kante’s early appearances for Chelsea have suggested his form for Leicester was no fluke, with club legend Claude Makelele telling Samuel Stevens of The Independent: “He is a young player I really like, and I hope he will be better than I was.”
Even if Kante can merely match Makelele’s level, he will be a huge asset to the Blues.
Wenger must have considered a swoop for Kante himself. After all, this summer he lost two defensive midfielders in Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, who both left the club at the end of their contracts.
A holding player was always going to be a priority for the Arsenal boss, and Kante would surely have figured in this thoughts. After all, Wenger made no secret of his respect for the player’s talents.
Speaking to beIN Sports (h/t Sky Sports' Coral Barry) earlier this summer, Wenger said:
I admire and like N'Golo Kante a lot. He gives you ideas. He gives you the feeling that the higher the level he plays at, the more at ease he is.
We are talking about numbers. He has the most interceptions in Europe and by far. He has incredible quality. He feels the game, only very few people can do that. He's always where he needs to be.
It is very rare to have that in the central midfielder. Not always orthodox, but always in the right place.
Quite what Wenger’s “ideas” were we’ll never know. Ultimately, it seems there were two main reasons he elected against rivalling Chelsea for Kante. The first is that he’d already moved to sign Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach.
Ultimately, Arsenal only have a finite budget. Having spent big to lure Xhaka, it would arguably have been irresponsible of Wenger to acquire another deep-lying midfielder at a time when he also needed a central defender and a striker.
After unveiling the Switzerland international as an Arsenal player, Wenger waxed lyrical about the qualities Xhaka brings to the Emirates Stadium.
Speaking to Gerry Cox of the Telegraph, he said:
He likes to sit, give good long balls and be available for the centre-backs. He has a good mixture of short and long balls, and in midfield it is important for us to sometimes stretch defenders.
We have a game that is based on shorter passes than other teams so sometimes you have a player who can kick the longer ball gives us a chance to get some oxygen and some space.
He has a good engine, good stature, he is good in the air and has a good balance in his game, he has a good short ball and a good long ball.
Therein lies a clue as to why Wenger chose Xhaka over a Kante. The Frenchman’s passing is meticulous—according to Squakwa, he has an outstanding 94 per cent success rate this season. However, he is occasionally unambitious.
While he keeps the ball moving, he rarely plays longer balls. Of his 281 successful Premier League passes in a Chelsea shirt, only 22 have been over any real distance, and he has yet to attempt a successful through ball in 2016/17. What’s more, 37 per cent of his passes go backwards.
Wenger wanted someone who was both a destroyer and a creator—someone whose range of passing could hurt teams as much as their tough tackling. Xhaka fits the bill. Not only is he prepared to use his physicality to help Arsenal regain possession, when he has the ball at this feet, he is able to pick out team-mates from deep with unerringly accurate, raking passes.
He’s also now demonstrating a goal threat that Kante simply cannot match. Xhaka has now scored with long-range strikes in his last two Arsenal appearances—Kante is still to muster a shot on target for Chelsea.
Kante is a superior ball-winner. At times, Xhaka’s tackling can be somewhat clumsy. However, Wenger has clearly decided he wants to use a system that employs midfielders with a better all-round game. That’s where Xhaka is the clear winner. While Kante is a specialist, Xhaka excels in several aspects of the game.
He also brings a psychological boost to the team. In the same interview with the Telegraph, Wenger pointed out: "He already has experience abroad and that is reassuring. He was captain at his young age at Monchengladbach, which is not a small club, so he has leadership qualities."
Having lost two experienced players in Arteta and Flamini, Wenger wanted to add leaders to his squad. Xhaka may still be relatively young, but he has a natural authority that is transmitted on the field.
Another factor in Wenger’s decision will have been his faith in Francis Coquelin. Although Kante has received more acclaim than Arsenal’s own French ball-winner, the statistics suggest that Coquelin has enjoyed a very effective start to 2016/17.
Squawka says that he averages five defensive actions per match as opposed to Kante’s four. Kante, who has appeared in one more Premier League match than Coquelin, has managed a total of nine interceptions this season. Coquelin already has 14. Throw in the fact that Arsenal’s man is also superior in the air and Wenger’s loyalty begins to feel somewhat justified.
When the two teams line up on Saturday, it’s likely to be Coquelin rather than Xhaka who faces off against Kante. The Swiss is still bedding in to his new surroundings, and Wenger seems cautious to introduce the new boy too soon. However, Arsenal should still have enough strength in midfield to cope.
Kante looks set to be an excellent signing for Chelsea, but Wenger won’t have too many regrets about letting him join a rival club. If Arsenal can find a way to beat the Blues this weekend, he’ll feel all the more justified in his decision.