There’s a scene in the film The Family Man when Nicolas Cage is in a department store, trying on an expensive designer suit. In a previous life - his real life - he was a high-flying Wall Street trader, a carefree bachelor with seven-figure stock options and a Ferrari in the underground parking lot. Now, as a result of some supernatural, Capra-esque shenanigans, he’s been teleported into an alternative existence: a doting father of two working as a tyre salesman in the New Jersey suburbs, scrimping and saving, trapped for eternity in domestic monotony. But when he puts the suit on, he feels an electricity in it: the twinges of his former self, crying out to him through the finely-woven merino wool fibres, caressing him from the smooth silk lining.
Cage impulsively decides he’s going to buy the suit.
“It’s $2,400,” his prim suburban wife Kate protests. “Are you out of your mind? Come on, take it off. We’ll go to the food court and get one of those funnel cakes you like.”
And so, with a heavy heart and a deep sigh, N’Golo Kante slipped off the luxury suit. It was early in the second half of Wolves v Chelsea on Wednesday night, and the ball had just broken loose in midfield. In a fraction of an instant, Kante stirred to life. Some earthen and long-dormant urge seemed to awaken, the old habits kicking back in. There was a loose ball in midfield to be won. And he, N’Golo Kante, would be the man who won it.
Except he wasn’t close enough. He was in the wrong position to be close enough. And even if his natural instincts had unthinkingly drawn him towards the ball, the closest man to it was not Kante but Cesc Fabregas, who for all his undoubted gifts is the sort of midfielder who tends to regard tackling in the same way most of us regard having to fold up a fitted bed sheet: fair enough, it’s got to be done, but for heaven’s sake don’t expect it to be done well.
As Kante has gamely grappled with his new role at Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri, this is the sort of scene to which both we and he have become increasingly accustomed. Since the arrival of Sarri, Chelsea’s midfield has been completely reconfigured: not just in style and personnel, but in purpose. It’s now a unit set up for control, with the passing metronome Jorginho at its base, the shuttling Mateo Kovacic to the left and Kante to the right, now principally in an attacking role.
There was a solid rationale for it, too: for a team that wants to dominate territory as well as possession, putting your main ball-winner higher up the pitch seemed to make a lot of sense. Except, four months into the season, Kante isn’t winning the ball very much at all. So far, he’s completing just 1.8 tackles a game, compared to 3.6 during Chelsea’s title-winning season in 2016-17. Last season, under Antonio Conte, he ranked third in the Premier League for tackles and second for interceptions. This season, under Sarri, 64th and 64th respectively.
The numbers indicate that Chelsea are spurning Kante’s strengths for not a lot in return. His passing is down, his shooting marginally up, yet he’s scored just a single goal, the same as in each of the last two seasons. And yet perhaps most compelling is the evidence of the eyes: the long stretches of play, both in attack and defence, when Kante is simply a passenger, the game simply happening around him, Jorginho to Kovacic to Jorginho to Willian to Hazard, and yet all the while Kante has been ceaselessly, invisibly running, a tireless ghost in a beautiful machine.
And so as Morgan Gibbs-White shrugged off Fabregas’s measly, almost metaphysical, shoulder charge and released Raul Jimenez for the equalising Wolves goal, it was impossible not to wonder what was going through Kante’s mind as he arrived in the penalty box to survey a tableau he could almost certainly have prevented. Was he mourning his previous life as an elite firefighter, snapping and grappling at the base of midfield? Was the full will-sapping tedium of his new existence collapsing in on him all at once? “Jesus, Kate,” Cage bellows at his wife in the film. “I could have been *a thousand times* the man I became. How could you let me give up on my dreams like this?”
Probably not, by all accounts. Kante doesn’t really strike you as brooder or a troublemaker. There’s that wonderful story from his early days at Leicester when one of the car park attendants mistook him for a lost academy kid and offered to help track down his parents. As France celebrated their World Cup victory in the summer, Kante retreated to the shadows, too abashed even to touch the trophy he had played such a big part in winning. And he was one of the very few personalities to emerge from the recent Football Leaks revelations with his reputation enhanced, as it emerged he had intervened to prevent his image rights payments being paid into an offshore account to save tax. In a league of big cheques and big egos, Kante stands out by not standing out at all.
Kante is, in short, the sort of guy a more enlightened regime would build the entire club around. Instead, you’re beginning to wonder exactly where he fits into a Chelsea system that actively seeks to extinguish the very skills that made him famous. “I don’t practise tackles,” Pep Guardiola famously declared a couple of years ago, and the visit of his Manchester City side to Chelsea this weekend provides a glimpse into two largely congruent visions of the game, in which winning the ball back is merely an adjunct to the principal strategy, by which you never lose it in the first place.
Sarri, for his part, has been unusually critical of Kante this season, explaining that he lacks the technical ability and adaptability to play in a position where he won two Premier League titles in two seasons, playing two very different systems. Sarri’s countryman Arrigo Sacchi went further in a recent interview, observing that “when it comes to game construction, he is not as bright as Jorginho”. And even if you ignore the vaguely sinister subtext there, there’s a bleak resonance to this tale, the familiar process of a player being defined not by what they can do, but what they can’t. As with most markets these days, in football human capital is cheap, labour freely expendable. Already, it feels like this particular sketch may reach its conclusion only when either Kante or Sarri is sent expensively packing.
Until then, Kante remains in a weird and yet entirely comfortable sort of limbo. Neither entirely playable nor entirely droppable, still turning out every weekend, still running all 15 of his lungs into the ground, but with a slowly diminishing sense of purpose: the man who traded in a life of thrills and scrapes for the more modest, becalmed pleasures of rote and routine. And who knows, perhaps there’s a certain grace in that too. “Forget it,” Cage eventually concedes in the film, returning the suit to its hanger and the hanger to its rail. “We’ll get a funnel cake. It’ll be the highlight of my week.”
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