N’Golo Kante may no longer be the key cog in Chelsea’s midfield. But he could be the missing piece for Manchester United.
During the two transfer markets last season, Manchester United were linked with 290 different players. It will be no different during the current transfer window.
However, there is one player who is unlikely to be mentioned in relation to a transfer to the Red Devils. Yet, he could prove to be the ideal option for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side – N’Golo Kante.
The French midfielder could be the missing piece for Man United. The player who helps them bridge the gap to Manchester City and Liverpool, challenge for trophies and re-establish themselves as a regular Champions League team. He may even be available for a transfer and should be the first name on the list of transfer targets Solskjaer gives to Ed Woodward.
Man United need an upgrade on Matic
Nemanja Matic recently signed a new three-year contract. Yet, the Serbian turns 32 on August 1 and is not the long-term option for the defensive midfield position in Solskjaer’s side. In fact, with the exception of the first few games following the shutdown, and his first few months at the club in 2016, Matic has been something of a lumbering presence in the Man United midfield.
The former Chelsea midfielder was once the best in his position in the Premier League but is now in decline. Matic will remain a valuable squad member, but an upgrade is required. Kante could be the ideal player for the defensive midfield role and the 29-year-old may also be available.
Kante has been the key cog in every team he has played for
The French midfielder has just had the worst season of his career, owing to injury and fitness concerns. But he should not, by any means, be written off. Over the last four years, he has been the key factor in deciding the destiny of the game’s biggest prizes.
Kante was Leicester City’s best player as they upset all the odds to win the Premier League in 2016.
He then signed for Chelsea and helped the London side go from 10th in the league the previous season to champions under Antonio Conte. He was, rightly, named PFA Player of the Year in 2017 for his efforts.
The following year, Kante was arguably France’s best player as Les Bleus won the World Cup in Russia. Over three years, the midfielder had made his mark in deciding the destination of the game’s biggest prizes.
Change in managers has stalled Kante’s career at club level
However, since lifting the World Cup, Kante’s club career has stalled somewhat. Kante was no longer the central cog in the Chelsea midfield last season. Maurizio Sarri moved him into a more advanced position, as he wanted every single passage of play to go through Jorginho.
The former Chelsea manager was also strangely dismissive of Kante when asked why he wasn’t being used in his natural position. According to Sarri, Kante did not move the ball fast enough and he would not change his system to accommodate him.
Sarri left for Juventus and was replaced by Frank Lampard. However, Kante has still yet to be restored to a central position in the team, even when fit and when Jorginho has been omitted.
Chelsea’s trouble dealing with counter-attacks
Despite having the best defensive midfielder in the world, albeit one who has missed spells of the season due to injury, Chelsea are susceptible to the counter-attack under Lampard.
In the 2019/20 Premier League season, no team conceded more goals to fast breaks. As Jonathan Wilson noted for The Guardian, it was a similar story with Derby County.
In the 2018/19 season, no other side in the Championship conceded a higher proportion of goals to fast breaks than Lampard’s Derby team.
The centre of midfield appears to be a blind spot for the Chelsea boss, who has, so far in the transfer market, prioritised upgrading the forwards in his team, rather than a leaky defence. This is also despite Chelsea conceding 54 goals last season, the most in a league campaign since the 1996/97 season.
There was a telling insight into Lampard’s approach following the 5-3 defeat to Liverpool last week. The Chelsea manager said, “At 4-3, if we didn’t concede the fifth, I felt like we were coming. But it wasn’t to be.”
If a manager laments conceding a fifth goal in a match and says that, if his team didn’t let in the fifth goal, they may have got something from the game, he probably doesn’t place a great deal of emphasis on defensive solidity. It wasn’t the fifth goal that cost you, Frank.
It also appears that Lampard, like Sarri, may prefer a ball-playing deep-lying midfielder – but Billy Gilmour ahead of Jorginho – over the terrier-like Kante.
Lampard’s squad overhaul
Yet, despite their defensive troubles, Lampard is seemingly chasing another creative midfielder, Kai Havertz, rather than looking for defensive reinforcement. He may also need to sell players to fund this and other transfer deals. Forwards Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech have already joined Chelsea. While the club reportedly wants to sign left-back Ben Chilwell from Leicester City.
These transfers aren’t cheap, and Kante is probably Chelsea’s most saleable asset. The French midfielder has long been linked with a move to Real Madrid. However, they would need to sale unwanted players, such as James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale, to fund any deal.
Real also would not be able to match United in the transfer market following the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Man United should test the waters with Kante bid
In short, Lampard’s apparent blind spot for a defensive presence in central midfield, combined with Chelsea needing to raise money for a squad overhaul, could put Kante in the transfer window. If so, Man United should move fast or at least test the waters with a bid.
Man United appear to have more pressing transfer priorities than the defensive midfield position. They are reportedly in the market for a right-sided forward, a central defender and a left-back. Yet, if they can get the right player to start alongside Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes in midfield, the team could go to another level.
A fully-fit Kante, breaking up play and protecting Man United’s defence, would be the perfect player for Solskjaer. It would enable United to fully unleash Pogba, Fernandes, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. And could be a transformation transfer on the level of Bruno. Or Kante when he joined Leicester and Chelsea.