When Chelsea icon Claude Makelele was once asked about his opinion on N’Golo Kante, he told the London club’s website, “People talk about the Makelele position, but I am old and it is time everybody called it the Kante position. N'Golo deserves that. Every time I watch N'Golo, I see so much desire in him, so much focus and so much determination to make himself a better player with every game”.
He continued, “He was the heartbeat of the Leicester team, but it was also like taking a bulldog for a walk, you had to keep pulling him back because he had so much energy.”
After Makelele’s departure, Chelsea had failed to find a long-term successor even half as effective as former Real Madrid man. That being said, it isn’t easy to replace someone of the Frenchman’s calibre. Many players may have his ability and may have his endless energy, power and ball-winning prowess – but rarely does one player have all the attributes to truly prove the ability required to take over Makelele’s mantle.
Chelsea’s purchase of Leicester City’s ‘bulldog’ N’Golo Kante was lost amidst a whole lot of more flashy, expensive transfers such as Paul Pogba, Granit Xhaka, and so on. Yet, after winning his second title in two years, the £30m signing has all the makings of ‘coup of the decade’ by a Premier League club.
Kante has had a direct and rather evident impact on Antonio Conte’s new-look Chelsea side. Conte was able to utilise the Frenchman’s might and power at the heart of the team in a 3-4-2-1. The player who he was most often partnered with, Nemanja Matic, was not as impressive.
The Serb learned his trade as a classic defensive midfielder, sitting in front of the back four (or three) and nipping potential attacks in the bud. Conte’s system demanded more from him, resulting in him looking a bit awkward on occasion as it resulted in him being higher up the pitch than he would’ve liked.
This is where Chelsea’s potential new arrival Tiemoue Bakayoko makes perfect sense for Conte, Kante and Chelsea.
Monaco’s stunning season which saw a league title after 17 years and a semi-final appearance in the Champions League skyrocketed the value of every single player in the squad. This was natural, of course, considering most of their best performers were at an age deemed ideal for a ‘big’ transfer.
Bakayoko is no different. While Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe, and Thomas Lemar terrorised defences, it was Bakayoko and his partner Fabinho who laid the foundation in midfield for their more creative teammates to thrive.
With Fabinho being a more conservative midfielder of the duo strictly in terms of positioning (he seemed to tackle everything with a heartbeat in front of his defence last season), it gave Bakayoko the opportunity to maraud forward as a ball carrier. This was something Chelsea lacked with Matic last season.
Bakayoko is physically imposing standing at over six foot and is powerful enough to shrug off people around him in order to get the ball forward. If it backfires, he has the long stride to make a lung-busting run into his own half to make a recovery. In the systems that Conte has utilised in the past, this seems to be a very important role that Bakayoko is being quoted for.
He might not be the flashiest with the ball at his feet (although he does tend to be with his fancy hair do’s and off-field activity), but he’s a mass of sheer power and grit. He would seamlessly fit into the present 3-4-2-1 system in place of Nemanja Matic. As mentioned above, Matic often underperformed last season in the same role.
A potential pairing of Kante and Bakayoko would be near-impenetrable on paper, and Conte is set to build an attacking force on an absolute concrete foundation. Bakayoko can fill in for the role of a ball carrier when they look to bully opposition sides or sit back as a defensive midfielder when they are being dominated and look to open up spaces from deep.
He has shown that he does have a few tricks up his sleeve with well-timed flicks and short passes. This should fit in well during transitions from defence to attack and interplay with players like Eden Hazard and Pedro.
Last season, Kante was key to this transition, as he showed that even he is capable of carrying the ball to a certain extent. Now, Chelsea have two players who can do it. Bakayoko did it throughout last season with Fabinho giving the defence that protective layer.
The crucial role that Bakayoko can also play is if or when Cesc Fabregas is needed. Conte’s best system at Juventus included Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal with Andrea Pirlo behind them, being a deep lying playmaker.
Fabregas can be key to unlocking the most stubborn defences in the world, and if Conte ever decides to play a three man midfield with the World Cup winning Spaniard, Bakayoko and Kante will prove to be a formidable shield for Fabregas in a potential 3-5-2.
This will automatically liberate Eden Hazard to play further up, having even more ominous consequences.
His other potential roles in the team would depend on Chelsea's progress in the transfer target. If Chelsea are able to land other top targets such as Alex Sandro and Danilo that are necessary for other formations, Bakayoko comes well equipped.
In Kante and Bakayoko, the Italian will have two of the most energetic midfielders suitable even for a 4-2-4, essentially a shape that Monaco had morphed into at times last season.
The Makelele effect
The aforementioned Chelsea great Makelele had a big role to play in Bakayoko’s development, as well. Makelele played the role of a technical director at Monaco for a brief period before he took up an assistant role at Swansea City.
He helped a then-flashy youngster who drove a pink Ferrari and resided in a villa on the French Riviera to concentrate on football and football only. He helped mentor and balance the young Frenchman’s game and learn to become more complete as a central midfielder.
Makelele regards him highly, now that he’s shone on the biggest stage of all and has been able to hold the midfield on his own. That is exactly what Chelsea would be looking for, as they look to pair him up with N’Golo Kante.
Conte showed last season his brilliant ability to get the best out of his players and passionately influence them both on and off the field. The Italian is a big admirer of Kante, and now has a player on his hands who could potentially replicate Kante’s impact on the pitch in his own style.
The French pair is extremely athletic, have seemingly endless energy, are good while tackling and virtually have a second pair of lungs. Kante dominated the midfield by himself over the course of the last two seasons in the English top flight, and now has someone who will look to compete with him pass-for-pass and tackle-for-tackle.
Bakayoko is still only 22 and will benefit from having an experienced Kante by his side. After all, he seems to have taken a liking for Makelele’s influence, why wouldn’t he relish the opportunity to play beside his idol’s proclaimed successor?