N’Golo Kante vs. Eden Hazard: Who should win Premier League Player of the Year?

Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images /

Chelsea’s second goal against Bournemouth on Saturday felt an awful lot like this season’s Player of the Year debate in miniature. Here was N’Golo Kante, breaking up an opposition attack, taking possession and playing a near-perfect 40-yard diagonal to his team’s best attacker. And here was Eden Hazard, taking a perfect first touch, then a perfect second and a perfect third before scoring a difficult goal with such ease it took a replay to realize he ran 40 yards to do it.

If Kante and Hazard aren’t your top two PotY candidates, they should be. Chelsea have been too dominant not to have one of their players win the award, and Kante and Hazard have been their two best players. But who’s been better?

This is a difficult question for a number of reasons. One is that Chelsea are such a well-functioning, balanced team, it’s hard to imagine the loss of either player having an outsized impact on the overall quality of their performances. That’s a difficult theory to prove given Kante has started 30 of the Blues’ 31 league games this season and Hazard has started 29, but there are a few reasons to consider it.

First, Chelsea have won all three league games they’ve played this season without either Kante or Hazard in the starting XI.

Second, on the slightly more numerous occasions Antonio Conte has rested other key players, his team have looked more or less exactly as good as they have when Conte has picked his first-choice XI. This may seem somewhat beside the point given the premise of this debate is that Kante and Hazard are Chelsea’s most important players, but it’s worth remembering the concern when Diego Costa’s dalliance with the Chinese Super League saw him out of the starting XI earlier this year, and how little his absence actually impacted Chelsea’s play.

Third, Chelsea’s title-winning form began when Conte switched from a 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3/3-5-2, and neither Kante nor Hazard seemed like they’d be a frontrunner for PotY before then. In short, while Kante and Hazard have had wonderful individual seasons by any standard, Chelsea don’t depend on them in the same way, say, Arsenal have depended on Alexis Sanchez. Nonetheless, the two best players on the best team in the league seem like a good place to start the PotY debate. So again, who’s been better?

The second, and main, reason this is a difficult question is that Hazard and Kante are very different players. Kante deserves credit for his formerly overlooked and now possibly underlooked work on the ball, but he’s a defensive midfielder first and foremost. His job, which he does better than anyone in the Premier League (and possibly the world), is to shield the defenders behind him and to win possession for his team.

Among players with more than 20 appearances, Kante ranks fourth in tackles per 90 minutes this season, per WhoScored, behind Idrissa Gueye, Francis Coquelin and Jordan Henderson, but he attempts fewer than all of them and his success rate his higher (right around 75 percent, the same as last season, when he averaged nearly two more tackles per 90 minutes for a Leicester side that saw much less of the ball than Chelsea). Chelsea, thanks in no small part to Kante, have so far conceded 10 fewer goals from direct attacks (“attacks in which 50 percent of ball movement went directly towards goal”) than they did in all of last season (13 vs. three), per Michael Caley, writing for The Economist.

Heading into the Bournemouth match, Kante had started five goal-scoring counter-attacks for Chelsea, also per Caley. His assist for Hazard was, presumably, the sixth, though the exact definition of counter-attack isn’t offered. This is a product of the fact he wins a lot of tackles as much as it’s a product of any great passing ability, but whichever way you look at it, Kante’s been superb.

Hazard’s job, in contrast, is to make Chelsea’s attack work. That description is deliberately vague because the Belgian’s job is deliberately vague. Sometimes he plays closer to Costa as a second striker, sometimes he plays as more of a traditional winger or wide forward, sometimes he comes inside and plays as a number 10 and sometimes he does it all in the same match. He does whatever he wants, basically, and more than any other player is responsible for making the Blues’ attack click.

Hazard has 14 goals and five assists in the league this season, and he probably deserves credit for about 30 percent of all the attacking value contributed by Marcos Alonso, too, such is the level attention he demands, and therefore the amount of space he offers Chelsea’s left wing-back, arguably the worst player in Conte’s first-choice XI. Hazard’s dribbling has been exquisite this season — he’s second in the league in successful dribbles, per WhoScored (behind Middlesbrough’s Adama Traore, who’s in such a unique situation, and whose dribbling is so often pointless [not always through any fault of his own], I’m not sure whether he should count) — and is almost always Chelsea’s go-to method for establishing an attacking foothold in a game.

As I’ve written before, his actual goals/assists numbers aren’t that impressive compared to some of the league’s (and world’s) other elite attackers, but the value of his ability to relieve pressure for Chelsea, either by acting as a sort of wide target man, or simply by doing this sort of thing while closely marked, can hardly be overstated. Chelsea are a weird dominant team in that they’re usually pretty happy to sit back early on in matches, and work their way into control as the first half progresses, often by targeting Hazard, who is better than anyone in the league at forcing defenders onto the back foot.

Kante and Hazard, then. They’re both good. So, again (again), who should win the PotY award?

Kante is the favorite to win, and I suspect he will win. This has at least something to do, however, with the fact he could have won the award for Leicester last year, didn’t, left and we all watched them fall apart without him. Kante has been the only missing piece for the Foxes this season, and so it has been easy to explain their bad form by pointing to his absence. Leicester’s recent form under Craig Shakespeare (and their Champions League form under Ranieri earlier this season) complicates that narrative somewhat, but the basic point stands: over the past two seasons, Kante has been the best player in the league. That’s not an entirely logical basis on which to hand out a single-season award, but it seems to me perfectly natural to think that way, especially about such a likable player.

Kante’s other great virtue in this debate is that something about him just feels new. Claude Makelele is his obvious historical predecessor, but Makelele never seemed so busy. The relentless energy with which Kante plays the game — propelled, seemingly, by his own improbability — is staggering. The fact he’s so small only adds to the sense of wonder that accompanies watching him play. There is a feeling something has gone wrong, that a man of Kante’s stature couldn’t possibly be this everywhere this always. To watch Kante is to be bemused by repetition: him? Again?! All this is only amplified by the fact he seemed to come completely out of nowhere last season, that rare world-class player no one had heard of before he was world-class.

This is a compelling story made even more compelling by the fact the underdog it stars plays in the ultimate underdog position. Who ever cared about a defensive midfielder? No one, that’s who. Except Kante doesn’t give you a choice.

Hazard could hardly be more different. His career so far has followed literally the exact trajectory we expect the career of an elite modern player to follow. We know about Hazard. We’ve known about him since he was a teenager, and especially since Chelsea bought him for £30 million (which was still a lot of money five years ago) as a 21-year-old. We know what he does, we know how he does it and we know that for some Jose Mourinho-related reason he took a mental vacation for most of last season. We even know there’s a chance he completes the perfect elite-modern-player career arc by joining Real Madrid in the summer. Hazard is a stunning player, a beautiful player, a player that can make you scream and shout with a single touch. But Hazard is not interesting. He is just good.

The choice, then, between two players who have played two very different positions about as well as they can be played over the course a league season comes down to a simple question: whose skill set to do we value more?

Separating the quality and value of a team’s defense from the quality and value of a team’s attack is an impossible task, especially so for a team like Chelsea, who are so good at both. It’s been said that without Kante, Hazard wouldn’t have the freedom to do what he does. But it seems to me at least equally true that without Hazard, Kante’s job would be pointless. A choice must be made, somehow, so why not turn back to Chelsea’s second goal against Bournemouth on Saturday, which felt an awful lot like the PotY debate in miniature?

Kante has made more important interceptions and played better passes this season, just has Hazard has scored better goals in more important situations, but as a simple illustration of what they both offer this Chelsea side, it would be hard to find a better 30 seconds. Who’s contribution was more significant?

My answer, which I suspect will differ to those who actually vote for this award, is Hazard. There’s a reason attackers get all the attention we occasionally, when a player like Kante comes along, convince ourselves belong to those behind them: no skill in this sport is more valuable than the ability to produce goals. Given the choice between a world-class attacker and a world-class defensive midfielder, take the attacker. It was ever thus.

Kante’s pass on Saturday was good, but Hazard’s first touch was great, the shift of his hips to beat Artur Boruc so subtle as to convince it you it was easy. There is nothing harder.

Weekly awards

The Adam Lallana Award for Misses: Vincent Janssen

There was stiff competition for this award, as Ross Barkley, Charlie Adam and Vincent Janssen all missed golden opportunities. Barkley’s was, undoubtedly, the funniest, the Englishman misjudging Kasper Schmeichel’s position so severely he seemed not even to understand why his shot went wide. But Janssen takes the prize for hitting the bar from a yard out with Tottenham and Watford level at 0-0. Janssen has had a miserable first season in north London, scoring only once (from the penalty spot) in 23 appearances. He was never going to unseat Harry Kane as Mauricio Pochettino’s first-choice striker, which meant, given Pochettino almost never plays two forwards, he must have expected to spend a considerable amount of time on the bench. But even so, it’s been rough. If Erik Lamela had been fit at all the season, Janssen may have played considerably fewer than the 789 minutes he’s managed in the league. He’s only 22, and someone will take a chance on him, but with Spurs now looking increasingly like a long-term member of England’s top four, it’s unclear what value he offers them.

The Pep Guardiola Award for Bizarre Team Selection: Jurgen Klopp

The announcement of Liverpool’s starting XI against Stoke on Saturday was met with widespread confusion, as Jurgen Klopp named five defenders in the lineup, dropped his best two fit players in Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, and replaced them with 17-year-old Ben Woodburn and 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold. When the two Brazilians scored a goal a piece in the second half to complete the Reds comeback, it was hard not ask why they hadn’t started. Which is what everyone did ask after the game, incidentally, in answer to which Klopp gave some alarming quotes about the players’ fitness/health. Liverpool haven’t done anything the easy way for 30 years, but even by their lofty recent standards, this push for the top four has been hard going. It’s worth remembering this side finished eighth last season, and have already surpassed their points total from 2015-16, so there’s reason to be excited with what Klopp’s building, but seriously, win one game 2-0.

The Leicester Award for Running Out of Luck: Sunderland

The dream is dying. Sunderland’s glorious, by which I mean terrible, decade-long stint in the Premier League is almost over. There’s still a glimmer of a chance they survive, and this is Sunderland we’re talking about, so we can’t count out their innate ability to not get relegated despite obviously being one of the worst three teams in the division, but the writing appears to be on the wall after a 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United on Sunday, the seventh match in a row David Moyes’ side have failed to score. In reference to the reaction to Seb Larsson’s first-half red card, Moyes gave his players “credit for trying to stick with it,” which is as clear an indication as any of how low the bar has sunk at the Stadium of Light. If they don’t get relegated this season, they will never get relegated.

The Chelsea Award for Pop Psychology: Leicester

Leicester have been rapidly climbing the table under Craig Shakespeare, despite his doing almost literally nothing different to his predecessor, Claudio Ranieri. Shakesepeare won his first seven games in charge in all competition before Sunday’s very weird 4-2 loss to Everton. But of course that match was played for Leicester very much in the shadow of Wednesday’s trip to the Vicente Calderon to face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals, which may or may not have had something to do with the fact Everton scored the game’s opening goal in 30 seconds after Kevin Mirallas ran past most of Leicester’s defense, fell over/was fouled and then Tom Davies ran past the rest of Leicester’s defense. This team will soon be to sports psychologists what Papua New Guinea is to anthropologists.

The David Moyes Award for This Is Getting Painful: Arsenal

Arsene Wenger is supposedly waiting for the right time to announce a decision on his future, but it feels increasingly like there is no right time. The loss to Crystal Palace on Monday was especially bad, but at what point do we accept things will not be getting better? I still believe the smart move for Arsenal is to keep Wenger around for another season or two as they come up with an actual, real life plan for what to do once he leaves, but one way or another, they need to put the fans out of this miserable limbo and make a decision.