In the 25-year history of the Premier League, few footballers have offered an impact as sudden and as crucial as Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.
Plucked from relative obscurity two summers ago, Kante became the first footballer to play a significant role in consecutive Premier League title campaigns with two different clubs, triumphing with unlikely winner Leicester City before jumping ship to Chelsea and again performing excellently — well enough, in fact, to win both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards.
Kante has, to a certain extent, redefined what managers demand from their central midfielders. His mould of midfielder — defensive rather than holding, energetic rather than solid — seemed to have fallen out of favour in recent years, with more emphasis placed upon possession play. Suddenly, Kante’s mould of midfield is en vogue again, and almost every top Premier League side seems in need of a top-level midfielder such as he. This season’s transfer market, therefore, might be based heavily around the need for combative central midfielders.
Perhaps the most obvious example is Manchester City. Pep Guardiola revolutionized possession football at Barcelona by basing his side entirely around small, technical passing midfielders — players in his mould, in fact. He actually jettisoned Yaya Toure, now working under him again, to bring through Sergio Busquets.
But Guardiola has found English football tougher than he expected. He has expressed surprise at the number of long balls still played in the Premier League, and he has repeatedly commented on the surprising importance of “second balls” — essentially picking up the scraps — in the midfield zone.
With Fernandinho often used in different positions, Fernando not quite at the level Guardiola would like and Ilkay Gundogan still recovering from injury problems — plus the fact that Guardiola often plays both David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in a midfield trio and therefore needs a more defensive player in there — Guardiola could be forced into action.
Across the city, Manchester United seem poised to land Nemanja Matic from champions Chelsea for around £40 million. This would be a slightly peculiar move — it’s rare to see established first-teamers moving between rivals at the top of the league — although Matic is a player Jose Mourinho knows well from his time at Stamford Bridge, and he has contributed to two Premier League title successes.
Matic played alongside Kante last season, and therefore, the differences between them are obvious. Matic is clearly less mobile and less of a natural ball-winner, but his positional sense is excellent, he’s a hugely intimidating player in a physical sense, and he offers control and precision with his passing.
Mourinho presumably intends to play Matic and Ander Herrera together, with Paul Pogba pushed forward to the top of a midfield trio more permanently. It’s a neatly balanced trio; you could argue there’s no outright playmaker and no outright defensive midfielder, but all three players will contribute in both respects.
Liverpool are yet another side looking for another central midfielder. Although Jordan Henderson performed well in the holding role last season, the fact that Jurgen Klopp was clearly sniffing around RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita suggests that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with his options in the engine room, especially with Lucas Leiva finally set to depart.
Liverpool’s situation is, in a way, comparable to that of Manchester City — with two outright attacking midfielders further forward, they might need a more solid holding player. Although Georginio Wijnaldum played the majority of matches last season — and was often excellent — the arrival of Mohamed Salah will surely see Philippe Coutinho shift into a midfield role alongside Adam Lallana. If so, Klopp will want someone to cover behind them.
Arsenal, meanwhile, are a very different case because they signed their defensive midfielder last summer: Granit Xhaka. A hybrid between a tough tackler and a genuine deep-lying playmaker, Xhaka found himself in trouble with referees rather too often in the first half of last season, but he excelled in the second half of 2016-17, and his relationship with Aaron Ramsey worked particularly well in the 3-4-3 system Arsene Wenger deployed for the final couple of months.
Wenger is never one to sign a defensive midfielder unnecessarily, and with Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny in reserve, this is arguably a rare summer in which Arsenal don’t need to strengthen the defensive midfield position.
Tottenham, too, seem fairly secure in the centre of midfield. Victor Wanyama had an outstanding debut campaign at Spurs, meaning Eric Dier was often used in defence rather than midfield, though his versatility means he’s perfect for the fluid system Mauricio Pochettino demands.
Indeed, Tottenham are perhaps the only side amongst the top six that might be looking for a more forward-thinking central midfielder, especially after last summer’s surprise purchase of Moussa Sissoko from Newcastle proved unsuccessful. However, Pochettino might feel that Harry Winks, who looked remarkably cool in possession during cameo appearances last season, deserves a chance.
It seems that the side set to sign the most exciting all-round central midfielder is Chelsea, with the signing of Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco. Broadly comparable to Kante, in the sense that Bakayoko is primarily a ball-winner but also capable of storming forward into attack, Chelsea look set to assemble the most fearsome central midfield duo the Premier League has seen for many years.
While title rivals are seeking to find their Kante, Chelsea are raising the bar further and are set to deploy two hard-tackling, combative and intelligent defensive midfielders. In matches between title contenders next season, the engine room might be particularly feisty.
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