N’Golo Kante’s return gives Frank Lampard a midfield dilemma


2:39 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s win against Crystal Palace

It presents a dilemma for Lampard – even more so given how seamlessly Kante slotted back into the side. On his first appearance since the 4-1 win over Southampton over a month ago, there was little evidence of rustiness.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Kante was his usual industrious self right from the start, popping up in Palace’s left-back position to press Patrick van Aanholt at one moment then seemingly teleporting himself to the opposite corner of the pitch, helping Chelsea win the ball back before making himself available to collect a Kurt Zouma pass at the base of midfield.

N’Golo Kante’s performance in stats

  • 94 touches (2nd)
  • 47 passes in opp. half (2nd)
  • Two key passes (3rd)
  • Three interceptions (1st)
  • Six ball recoveries (2nd)
  • 11km covered (1st)

It was classic Kante. And while there were some rare signs of fatigue in the closing stages, the Premier League tracking data showed he covered more ground than any of his team-mates (11km), his perpetual motion underlined by the fact he clocked the highest average speed too.

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Kante’s best position was the subject of considerable debate last season, with Maurizio Sarri strongly criticised for preferring Jorginho at the base of midfield. But Lampard has persisted with the same approach.

On Friday, he said it was inaccurate to categorise Kante as a defensive midfielder. On Saturday, he gave him the freedom to roam up, down and across the pitch, taking it in turns with Kovacic to occupy the holding role. There was evidence of his improving technical qualities too.

In Jorginho’s absence, it was Kante who could be seen switching the play as Chelsea piled on the pressure in the first half. At one point, he used the outside of his boot to scoop a fine pass from right to left to find Christian Pulisic. By the end of the game, he had completed seven long passes out of seven – more than in his previous five appearances combined.

Is there anything he can’t do? Kante might have had a goal had his first-half effort not been blocked, and there was almost an assist in stoppage time, when his clever, diagonal pass into the Palace box found Michy Batshuayi, who turned and sent a deflected effort narrowly wide.

Lampard may decide to pair Kante with Jorginho after the international break, but if he is to stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation he used again at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, that would mean dropping Kovacic.

Few Chelsea fans would have complained at that prospect at the start of the season, but the Croat looks liberated having struggled to exert himself under Sarri. His driving runs have added a different dimension to the midfield – no Chelsea player is averaging more dribbles this season – and his passing and positioning have been similarly impressive.

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The alternative, then, is to revert to the 4-3-3 formation he used earlier in the campaign and a midfield which looks a lot like the one Sarri used last season, with Kante and Kovacic shuttling up and down the pitch either side of Jorginho, whose recent renaissance has made him undroppable.

The issue there, however, is that it would mean leaving out one of the players currently operating further forward in support of Tammy Abraham.

So who makes way?

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There seems little prospect of him leaving out the in-form Willian, whose return to the starting line-up in September has coincided with the turnaround in their form. Pulisic, meanwhile, currently looks every bit like the Eden Hazard replacement many hoped he would be, scoring his fifth goal in his last three Premier League games on Saturday.

Could Mason Mount, then, be the man to miss out? He may not have stood out as much as Willian or Pulisic in recent games, but his importance to Lampard is evident in the fact that he has started every Premier League game so far, playing more minutes than any other outfield player and providing creativity as well as goal threat in his current guise as a No 10.

This is a good dilemma for Lampard to have, of course. His players are flying and Chelsea are feeling the benefits. But it is a dilemma nonetheless. He was able to adapt without his midfield anchor on Saturday against Palace. The next challenge will be to successfully recalibrate his midfield again.

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