Tuesday 20 March 2018

Kante making a major splash in rise of the water carrier

N’Golo Kante keeps possession ahead of Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez during Chelsea’s victory last weekend. Photo: Getty Images
N’Golo Kante keeps possession ahead of Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez during Chelsea’s victory last weekend. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

Antonio Conte describes it as "quantity". The way in which certain midfielders impose themselves on a game, almost without anyone noticing. A tackle here. An interception there. A quick springboard pass, perhaps even the odd surreptitious foul. Another way of describing it might be "omnipresence".

Eric Cantona, of course, had a less complimentary way of putting it.

"Didier Deschamps," he once famously said, "ne sera jamais qu'un porteur d'eau." Deschamps will never be anything but a water-carrier. "You can find players like him on every street corner," he added with a scoff. In a strange sort of way, Cantona was right, but not in the way he intended.

Look through the Premier League, and the water-carriers are everywhere. But nobody is scoffing at them any more.

In the two decades since Deschamps graced the Premier League with Chelsea, the role of the defensive midfielder - the holder, the anchor, whatever you want to call it - has subtly shifted. The development of the two-bank midfield in the early 2000s saw players like Claude Makelele thrive on snuffing out attacks before quickly laying the ball off to more technical colleagues.

Recent years, however, have seen more and more teams employing a high-tempo front-pressing game - not a new idea in itself, of course, but new perhaps in its extent and ubiquity. Even the humble shin artist must now be skilled enough on the ball to evade a pursuer and pick a pass. And this is where the new generation of screening midfielders - Water Carrier 2.0, if you like - comes in.

Southampton manager Claude Puel, once a defensive midfielder himself with Monaco, recently noted the change. "I was a different generation," he said. "I played in front of the defence and had a good recovery of the ball. But it's important in modern football to have a player in this position who is very technical. A good ability to work the ball and switch it wide, while anticipating the situation."

The player Puel was referring to was Oriol Romeu, who has quietly become one of the Premier League's most improved players this season after drifting into irrelevance under Ronald Koeman. Romeu has already made more tackles and interceptions than in the whole of last season, adding steel to a game honed at Barcelona's academy under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola.

Meanwhile, the player Romeu replaced at Southampton, Victor Wanyama, has developed into one of the most important cogs in Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham side.


Wanyama is actually making fewer tackles than he did at Southampton, which is hardly surprising for a team that enjoys more ball possession. What he has added, however, is forward thrust: only four players have made more passes this season, and only four Spurs players have had more shots on goal.

Koeman, for his part, has been busy nurturing Idrissa Gueye at Everton: statistically the most effective holding midfielder in any of Europe's major leagues in 2016, with an average of more than eight tackles or interceptions per game. He remains the Premier League's leading tackler this season, despite missing the last month on Africa Cup of Nations duty.

Gueye owes his anticipation and control to his days in the Lille academy.

"It rained constantly in the north of France," he remembered earlier this season. "The ball zipped across the pitch and it was far too fast for us, so we were losing control of it. We had to work to overcome this." Of course, no discussion of defensive midfielders would be complete without mentioning perhaps the pick of the lot: one of the leading contenders to be footballer of the year, and potentially only the second man to win back-to-back Premier League titles with different clubs. As the joke goes: 70 per cent of the planet is covered by water. The rest is covered by N'Golo Kante.

Conte freely admits that he had never heard of Kante two years ago. And when the diminutive midfielder first arrived at Leicester City in 2015, he was innocently asked by a car park attendant whether he was waiting for his mum and dad to collect him. But in a remarkably short space of time, Kante has become perhaps one of the all-time great Premier League central midfielders. His 14 tackles against Liverpool last week were the most by any player in a single game for more than two years.

Kante is often compared to Makelele, but in truth he is a more dynamic and creative sort of player. Typically, Conte often reserves his harshest criticism for his most treasured pupils, and he believes that Kante can offer Chelsea more going forward.

"He should improve in his build-up play," he said. "His first pass is always horizontal, and he needs to make that vertical. I think he's a complete midfielder, not only a defensive midfielder."

One thing all four of these midfielders have in common is that none of them are English. It is an enduring curiosity, in fact, that this country has produced very few genuine water-carriers. Michael Carrick has the intelligence and the calmness, but not the tenacity. Gareth Barry had the tenacity but not the speed. Carlton Palmer had the speed and the tenacity, but not the intelligence, the calmness or often full control over all four of his limbs. Perhaps the closest we have managed is the luckless Owen Hargreaves, who - by no coincidence at all - learned his football abroad. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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