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Chelsea may have lost their best player in the summer when Eden Hazard finally got his dream move to Real Madrid, but their most important one remained in West London. N’Golo Kanté still calls Stamford Bridge home despite rumoured interest from those at the Santiago Bernabéu and Juventus.
Blues' boss Frank Lampard hasn’t been able to make the most of the Frenchman so far this season, but Chelsea still find themselves in fifth position in the Premier League having taken 14 points from their eight matches played.
That's an impressive feat given the circumstances, yet even more remarkable when you consider the fact that Kanté has started just three of those games.
Manchester City being without Aymeric Laporte has dominated the headlines, while Adrian’s exploits between the sticks for Liverpool have caught the eye – despite the Liverpool defence not giving up much to the opposition in Alisson Becker's absence.
These two big blows for the title challengers have meant that Kanté’s absence has largely been overlooked by the masses. Yet there’s an argument to suggest his loss was the biggest of the three.
Defences can protect a deputy goalkeeper. Ball domination can prevent makeshift centre-backs from being too exposed. But the loss of one of the best midfielders in the world? Any team would be worse off without him.
Chelsea, to their credit, are performing admirably without their No.7. The sample size is small, just the five matches, but without Kanté they’re averaging two points per game, 2.4 goals scored and two goals against. The latter figure is skewed somewhat by the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United in the opening match of the season.
Without that game in the mix, their goals against average drops to 1.5. That still equates to 57 conceded over a 38-game season; usually far too many for a genuine top-four push, but Chelsea’s rampant forward line makes up for it.
With Kanté in the starting XI, something Chelsea fans have only witnessed on three occasions this term, Lampard’s men average 1.33 points, two goals and 1.33 goals against. The sample size is too small to really read into, but it is interesting to note that the difference in goals conceded when looking at both samples (minus the United match) is just 0.17.
The 28-year-old Frenchman is often described as a defensive midfielder even though he’s always been more of a box-to-box one, and Kanté’s impact on the team sees Chelsea improve in offensive areas. Lampard is tapping into his attacking traits without people realising.
For example, Kante is seeing less of the ball this season and attempting 15 fewer passes on a per 90 basis. However, he’s taking more risks and playing more forward passes.
For context, last season the former Leicester man was playing 21 per cent of his passes forwards, but this year that figure has risen to 32 per cent. Because of this his pass accuracy has dropped by 13 per cent, but his looseness on the ball creates more pressing opportunities and this is where Lampard’s new-look Chelsea side appear to thrive.
Furthermore, Kanté is now making more interceptions and more tackles on a per 90 basis than he managed last season. Not only is he more progressive and incisive, he’s also back to his defensively dominant best. But these numbers are only happening because of the transitional moments create by this forward-thinking version of the World Cup winner.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Blues perform over a sustained period of time with Kanté in the starting XI. His reemergence won’t magically fix the defence and they definitely won’t be more conservative in their play, but he looks set to be a vital cog in Lampard's midfield over the coming months of the season.