Key battle: Firmino v Kante

Friday Night Football returns for a second edition this season and involves two familiar foes, as Chelsea and Liverpool square off for the 53rd time this century – the most-played English fixture over that period.

N’Golo Kante and Roberto Firmino, who are both beginning their second year in the Premier League, are key players for either side.

Kante’s imperious debut season has been widely documented over the past 12 months. He was an all-action, ball-winning machine during Leicester’s title-winning campaign, tackling and intercepting more than any other Premier League player.

Chelsea results/shots faced v last season

Chelsea v Result (last season) Shots faced (last season) Result (this season) Shots faced (this season)
West Ham (h) Drew 2-2 13 Won 2-1 7
Watford (a) Drew 0-0 12 Won 2-1 6
Swansea (a) Lost 0-1 12 Drew 2-2 6

For a Chelsea side coming off a season when they conceded more goals (53) than in any campaign since 1996-97, Kante’s defensive prowess was clearly needed – and the early evidence suggests he’s already made an impact. Chelsea are unbeaten and have picked up five extra points from their corresponding fixtures last season (also beating newly-promoted Burnley).

Chelsea opening fixtures v last season

First 4 PL games, 2015/16 Chelsea PL First 4 PL games, 2016/17
63 Total shots faced 25
29 Total shots on target faced 7

Defensively, no side has faced fewer shots (25) or shots on target (7) in 2016-17, and the return against last season’s opponents has dramatically improved in this department.

Comparing Chelsea’s first four games this season with their opening fixtures from last year further illustrates the areas in which Kante has helped make a difference. The Blues have conceded less than half as many shots and, remarkably, under four times as many shots on target compared to this time last season.

Antonio Conte’s arrival and fresh approach has clearly provided a major boost to the Blues, but Kante is the only new signing to perform a significant role under the Italian – playing every minute – and deserves recognition for his part.

His individual numbers already lead his team-mates in many defensive categories, though he will do well to replicate last season’s volume of tackles and interceptions, given the larger share of possession Chelsea enjoy compared to Leicester.

N’Golo Kante’s defensive stats

PL 2016/17 N’Golo Kante Chelsea ranking
Recoveries 39 1
Tackles 13 1=
Interceptions 7 2
Distance covered 44.8km 1

Kante has recovered possession more times than any Chelsea player (39) – third-most in the Premier League – while no team-mate has made more tackles (13). Unsurprisingly, he’s also covered more ground (44.8 km) than any Chelsea player and his knack of relentlessly hassling opposing attackers will pose the biggest threat to Liverpool on Friday.

After a slow start in England, Firmino has gradually become a key performer on Merseyside, scoring more Premier League goals than any other Liverpool player (12) since the start of last season.

The Brazilian, who grabbed the headlines last weekend with two goals against Leicester, has also been productive in creative terms. He currently ranks as the Premier League’s most creative threat from open play, setting up 14 chances, highlighting the danger Kante must look to suppress.

Chance creation

PL 2016/17 Open play chances created Open play chances created per 90min
Roberto Firmino 14 3.5
Dusan Tadic 11 3.0
Eden Hazard 10 2.6
Nathan Redmond 10 2.5

The Brazilian is very much a modern-breed of attacker, equipped with a skillset that’s just as impressive off the ball as it is on it. No forward covered more distance per 90 minutes than Firmino last season (11.7km) while he also ranked sixth overall for sprints per 90 minutes (72). These are categories he’s already among the leaders for this season too.

While sprinting and ground covered won’t win you any games, it’s what this effort can lead to that really counts. No forward made anywhere near the number of tackles Firmino made last season (67), which is what his endless sprinting and pressing results in.

By winning possession in such advanced areas, the Brazilian then gives his side the chance to spring attacks on lesser-manned defences, presenting better chances for his team-mates.

heat-map-roberto-firmino-ngolo-kante_3786232

Judging by last weekend’s Heatmaps, Kante and Firmino will contest several exchanges in Chelsea’s defensive third this Friday.

Liverpool have scored more Premier League goals (50) than any other side in 2016 and will provide Chelsea’s newly-found defensive resolve with its toughest test under Conte.

The extent to which Kante can limit Liverpool’s attacking fluency, and reduce the interplay between Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane will be crucial to the home side’s fortunes.

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