Maurizio Sarri Defends Decision to Move N'Golo Kante Out of Holding Role

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2018

Chelsea head coach Maurizio Sarri arrives for a news conference in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Chelsea will play against Bate Borisov during the Europa League group L soccer match on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Sergei Grits/Associated Press

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri has defended his decision to move N'Golo Kante out of his preferred holding role, saying he doesn't want the France World Cup winner to play the position.

However, Sarri has called on Kante to understand his responsibilities better after the midfielder struggled during Saturday's 3-1 loss to Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League.

Asked about Kante's performance and his role this season, Sarri said, per FourFourTwo:

"I think, as you know, I want to play a centre midfielder with a very technical player, so for me the centre midfielder is Jorginho or [Cesc] Fabregas. I don't want Kante in this position.

"Kante, in the last match, wanted to solve the match after the first 15 minutes, but in the wrong way. He lost position, he attacked too much the other box, and I think this one is not one of the best characteristics of Kante. But it was only a reaction to the difficulties."

Jorginho struggled against Spurs, but Sarri doesn't want to move him out of the heart of midfield.
Jorginho struggled against Spurs, but Sarri doesn't want to move him out of the heart of midfield.Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

Sarri, who revealed he spoke to each player individually after the loss to Spurs, provided details on what Kante needs to do better in his new role: "Maybe it's only a question of time. But Kante has to stay near to Jorginho. When the ball is on the left, he has to stay very close to Jorginho. If we are on the left, if the ball is on the left, we have [Marcos] Alonso, [Eden] Hazard, [Mateo] Kovacic, [Ross] Barkley, he has to stay very close to Jorginho."

While the Chelsea boss has specific ideas about how Kante should be played, his seeming refusal to return him to a holding role will no doubt anger many. The frustration is understandable, since Kante won consecutive titles as a seek-and-destroy ball-winning marvel for Leicester City and Chelsea.

His success at breaking up play left many scratching their heads at the decision to move Kante from the base of midfield to accommodate Jorginho. The latter was Sarri's star pupil at Napoli and is a cultured player who's noted for his neat, steady and intelligent distribution of the ball.

Those qualities are fundamental to the stylish brand of possession-based football Sarri has brought to Stamford Bridge.

Liam Twomey @liam_twomey

It’s pointless to suggest Sarri should put Kante where Jorginho is (not least because Kante isn’t a holding mid). This is a philosophical choice as much as anything & Jorginho isn’t just key to Sarri’s system - he IS the system #cfc

However, Jorginho's patient approach seemed lost against the relentless high-pressing style Spurs employed at Wembley Stadium. Tottenham had Dele Alli pay close attention to Chelsea's less-than-physical deep-lying playmaker.

Jorginho responded with a timid performance that saw him complete a mere "43 of his 52 passes, his fewest in a Premier League game to date," per Dominic Fifield of the Guardian.

It's little wonder many have been calling for Sarri to put Kante back into a more familiar position:

Mark Worrall @gate17marco

One of the big talking points about 'Sarriball' has been Jorginho's regista role & Kante being deployed out of position -- For me, so far in this game we are seeing Chelsea's back four exposed in a way they wouldn't be if Kante was in his regular defensive midfield position. FACT

Gary Lineker @GaryLineker

Son just ran away from Jorginho. So baffling to see him playing in the position of the world’s greatest holding player, whilst Kanté plays on the right. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Worryingly for Chelsea, Spurs aren't the only side who have sought to stifle Jorginho. Fifield also noted how Richarlison did a similar job to Alli when Everton held the Blues to a 0-0 draw at home earlier this month.

In fairness to Sarri, a closer look at the situation reveals he may have point. First, it's debatable whether Kante even qualifies as a traditional holding midfield player.

The positions usually calls for a midfield to stay deep and screen a defence. Yet Kante has always been at his best when he's had the freedom to press and harass opponents all over the pitch.

His two best seasons came alongside a more stationary midfield partner. At Leicester, Danny Drinkwater sat deep while Kante hustled and harried during the 2015/16 campaign.

Kante has thrived with a natural anchorman alongside him.
Kante has thrived with a natural anchorman alongside him.Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

The next season saw Nemanja Matic provide the platform for Kante to roam with menacing intent as Chelsea captured a second title in three seasons.

Sarri's calling for more positional sense from Kante is merely a reminder of the value of discipline in helping a team keep its shape. It's Sarri's challenge to let Kante's terrier-like gusto flourish without it breaking down the structure of his system.

If he can't, Chelsea may end up wasting arguably the most talented member of the squad—a player the club recently deemed worthy of a new five-year contract.