There was so much, on the night of October 23rd on the Fulham Road, to suggest that, within the limits of football at least, an inter-dimensional tearing was afoot. Jose Mourinho, the most prodigious manager in the history of Chelsea Football Club, stood in the Stamford Bridge dugout, but his retinue was full of Manchester United staff, and he was trying haplessly to corral his players—his Manchester United players—away from an embarrassment of the shirt. The display in the top of your picture read 3-0 to Chelsea, and was about to change to 4-0. Mourinho’s defence, far from the airtight and atheistic back lines he’s famed for commanding, had become Chelsea’s catwalk. The player about to add Chelsea’s fourth was, so the script was supposed to have gone, still a Leicester City player: not just a Leicester City player, the Leicester City player, the man to whom the club owed a title, the biggest debt of joy they’d chalked up since the days of Keith Weller. That player was enticed by a project and turned down Jose, Arsène, sentiment and all to be a part of it. He was not brought in to be the new Joe Cole; he was brought in to be the next Claude Makélélé. And yet, with a drop of the shoulder and the smoothest check of the ball on to his right foot, N’Golo Kanté waltzed past the statuesque Chris Smalling like a nifty small forward, and deposited the ball he had received from Pedro Rodriguez into the far corner of the be’arsed David de Gea’s net.
Of the four goals Chelsea scored that night, Kanté’s pipped the whole pageant for beauty. It broke the heart of the returning Mourinho, and proponents of the Manchester narrative nationwide, as it formally announced Chelsea’s surge into title contention. Most of all, it broke the hearts of Leicester City fans, who but for the brilliance of Wes Morgan (brilliance, one hopes, he and his teammates will not forget is theirs as the season closes) might have seen Kanté score his first Chelsea goal against them the week before. “I miss him,” groaned Gary Lineker with great charity. Well he, and they, should. In a world of comical sporting hyperinflation in the transfer market, Leicester City had let the world’s best player go for £30 million.
The world’s best? A defensive mid? I should think the Premier league of 2016/17 as being the best place to test him. Much has been spoken of England in 2016 being an academy-arena of footballing philosophy: so many coaches, so many ways of playing and, when it comes playing Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, so many ways of attempted resistance. Full backs at 2½ (one pushed up a little further on one side than their counterpart on the other), massed banks of four, possession monopoly, aggressive three-man midfields, even a five-man screen in front of a back three: as far and wide as the Premier League stretches, there seems to be no defensive system that Kanté cannot break. He can do it by playing that game of his own, daring to try and shorten even more the distance in time between the ball he wins and the ball he releases. He can do it by exploiting his centre-of-gravity, one that must give challenge to a Coke can, in order to evade an immediate press. Or, with a technique least heralded of all of those he was able to show at Leicester, he can do it by immediately farming out one of those first time switches. The high, floating arcs of those long passes as they fall diagonally across to Marcos Alonso or Eden Hazard awaiting, seem to epitomise the freedom and sense of open possibility that, one presumes, he must communicate to his team-mates. Kanté was a miracle in 2015/16, an embodiment of defensive principle even more complete than hot-blooded Sergio Ramos, and more ostentatiously versatile than the understated Cesar Azpilicueta. What makes the praise of the Frenchman start to screech is that, perhaps under some tutelage from his equally understated deputy Nemanja Matic, he is beginning to kick on from being just a miracle in a deep position. No one has changed a team, two teams, like Kanté; few could redefine the landscape of a league like he has. He scores goals now too, it would seem.
Antonio Conte’s top-flight managerial career has been a tale of winning, true. It has also been a story of one man constantly, even comically revolutionised by systems. Arriving at the helm of the Italian national side, he was the lone Jacobin in a mob of sans-culottes; a man having to work at international level with a crew of players, scarcely more than half of them of an Italian international class. Any pretensions he might’ve had to a complex tactical system were thrown out the window, replaced by a very simple but highly dynamic three-man system. Taking up his unprecedented appointment at Juventus, he wished to replicate the bonito stylings of the 4-2-4 which had succeeded at the grassroots level with Siena and Bari. Not to be so, as he had to devise an added position such that the world’s finest all-round player at the time, Arturo Vidal, could function at his fullest power: in the centre. And so, the 3-3-4 was born, and a legacy ignited. Arriving at Chelsea, Conte wanted so badly to reunite with the 4-2-4, only for the lack of available powerhouse midfielders, twinned with Premier League vogues (for middle-third intensity and for possession, as of 2015/16), to make this notion completely untenable.
Conte, it seems at present, will triumph in 2016/17 because, like his fellow top-flight managers, he transcends vogues. But, compared to the far more dogmatic likes of Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp and Wenger (and respectfully relinquishing the more elastic, if more cynical, Pochettino), Conte does not transcend vogues by pretending to be sniffily above them. He transcends these vogues by working wholly outside of them, and to the dictates of his available squad. The Chelsea squad he inherited were neither a bastion of physicality, as per Spurs or the United Mourinho had thrust upon him, nor did they resemble City’s cabal of technicians. And yet, all of those teams have fallen afoul, in one fixture or another, of those same crude Premier League vogues, carried faithfully by the league’s mid-table. By some measure, at some point, they have also been torn asunder by Conte’s Chelsea.
Conte’s managerial philosophy seems almost Taoist: he endures the sturm-und-drang of his competitive surroundings, whether his opponents be better funded or player-equipped. He accepts his players, for both their limits and their ceilings of potential; with his squad, he does not seek to make ten Tiggers of his three Tiggers, three Pigglets, two Christopher Robins and two Winnie the Poohs. He is an ideal archetype of management: he allows himself to be composed, in many ways solely, by what he has at hand. And he works wonders with it. While all three of them are notionally three man systems, Conte’s Chelsea set up and exhibit very differently from his Juventus or Italian national sides, both to an individual and as collectives. And yet, Chelsea are set to dominate this year’s Premier League proceedings much as Juventus did Serie A, having rallied from a similarly losing position both within and outside of this season itself. Despite starting from a higher general platform and possessing a far higher ceiling, his Chelsea team are, like his Italian team, outperforming competition that, but a few long months ago, were measured as by far their superior.
There’s a lot to be said for a manager who is not defined by his system. And then there’s a lot to be said for players who define systems, who seem to speak for their own greatness not merely through the testament of their play but also through their teammates; by how their excellence insists that others must play. Xavi Hernandez is one fine recent example: a carousel midfielder who turned the game of football into a chess match of condensed distances. By this ‘define’ metric, N’Golo Kanté must have attested to his brilliance twice, for he has, within the scope of two consecutive league seasons, defined the systems of one (and-a-half) champion sides. It was via the nucleus of Kanté’s skillset that Leicester broke a culture, the Frenchman’s decisive industry clearing a key clause from the table of English championship conditionals: that champions must have the ball. Now, in a Chelsea culture that works by the demands of its most creative players, Kanté has proved himself again. Under Ranieri he took the ball away; under Conte, he takes it with him. It is Kanté who is the Chelsea manager’s primary instrument, the rock on which he will seek to build his legacy, which is to say he will build it in his own image. Kanté is a model of his manager’s lunatic intensity, his versatility, and his industry. It is Kanté who establishes Chelsea’s framework on the pitch, just as Conte draws the map off of it.
It is Kanté, as much as any player has done for him before, that has allowed Conte to play the kind of football that he has, systems of numerals apart, always wanted to play: what Xavi himself, admiring the ethics of Conte’s Italy at Euro 2016, called “a combination of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid”. In that metric, Kanté stands both Xavi and Gabi. He is all about dualities, the carrying onto a football field of what the poet John Keats called a ‘negative capability’, the entertaining of and coexisting within two different notions. He is not merely a man, he is a set of twins. He does not win titles alone; he wins them in pairs.