Neil Humphreys: N'Golo Kante the multi-tasker who makes Chelsea tick
Chelsea star so much more than defensive midfielder
No wonder Maurizio Sarri is still so angry.
He was essentially fired for making the same tactical decision that is currently earning Frank Lampard universal acclaim.
As Chelsea managers, both men shifted N'Golo Kante to the right side of midfield.
Lampard repeated the trick against Manchester City last weekend and may do so again in the Champions League tie at Valencia tomorrow morning (Singapore time). He's considered a visionary.
Yesterday, Sarri compared himself to the Taliban, such was the level of abuse he claims to have suffered from the Chelsea faithful. They loathed "Sarri-ball". They ridiculed his alleged lack of tactical diversity.
And, most of all, they hated their beloved Kante, the unstoppable automaton with an extra lung, being wasted in the wilderness of the right wing.
Kante, the isolated wide man, became the unwitting poster boy for all that was supposedly naive and arbitrary about the stubborn "Sarri-ball".
Kante, the revitalised, roving wide man, now represents the tactical acumen of a bright, ambitious young manager making the most of his limited resources.
Who said football supporters weren't fickle?
By his own admission, Lampard is benefiting not only from his predecessor's insight, but also the management at Kante's previous club.
When the indefatigable Frenchman won an unlikely title at Leicester City, the standard joke among the Foxes was Kante played on the left, Danny Drinkwater played through the middle and Kante played on the right.
He was a blurred study in versatility, long before the reputation of an immovable anchorman took hold and stuck to Kante like a limpet. And once it did, he couldn't be anything else.
Calling Kante the world's finest defensive midfielder was essentially damning him with faint praise, rather like calling Paul McCartney the world's greatest bass player. The two men do other stuff, too.
So Lampard demands more forward momentum from Kante and less back-four babysitting (if one wanted a strained analogy, Kante is expected to be more Lampard in an England jersey and less Steven Gerrard).
Sarri imposed similar demands, but the stereotype of a chain-smoking Italian caricature with broken English and a dogmatic agenda was fixed in place.
He had turned a one-man midfield fortress into a flimsy winger, apparently, and wasn't permitted the time for the new roles and relationships between Kante and Jorginho to develop.
But Lampard has borrowed from Sarri's template, added Mateo Kovacic for a little finesse on the left and created a formidable trio that restricted Manchester City to their lowest possession stats in Pep Guardiola's managerial career.
THREE GOALS IN SIX GAMES
Chelsea finished with 53.3 per cent possession, an extraordinary figure against any Guardiola side. Yes, City still prevailed as their superior quality overcame the youthful Blues, but the midfields were evenly matched.
Chelsea's exquisite opener began with a nifty one-two between Kovacic and Jorginho, a glided ball over the top from Kovacic and a precise finish from Kante.
The Frenchman now has three English Premier League goals in six games, ably supporting his side's inexperienced forward line.
Despite losing against City, Kante probably shaded Man-of-the-Match honours as he continued to redefine his position and responsibilities from minute to minute.
He proved that size didn't matter, brushing aside the much taller Benjamin Mendy. He both launched attacks and finished them. He threaded passes at one end and cut them out at the other.
Kante demonstrated that his fixed position exists only on a teamsheet. Everything is fluid once the game begins. His boots will find almost every blade of grass at some point.
But his greatest strength may underline Chelsea's biggest weakness against Valencia (as it did against City.) Kante is all things to all men because the Blues lack the right men.
His manager acknowledges that Kante has more to offer than the average defensive midfielder, but he isn't an average defensive midfielder. He's the best. When he attempted late attacking runs against City, Chelsea were exposed at the back.
Plus, there's a sense that Lampard wants Kante to double up on his attacking duties because the Blues lack a first-rate alternative.
Until the transfer ban is lifted, Chelsea can't call upon the kind of nimble No. 10s that Guardiola collects as pretty trinkets at City. So Kante provides a durable Band-Aid.
But even a Band-Aid, if stretched at both ends, snaps from time to time.
Chelsea's must-win match in Valencia leaves Lampard in an unenviable position. Right now, his most accomplished defensive midfielder, roving midfielder and goal-scoring midfielder all happen to be the same man.
Lampard, like Sarri before him, may never find the ideal position in midfield for Kante because Kante is the ideal candidate for almost every position.