Windsor Park, Belfast. It is the day before Chelsea begin their 2021/22 campaign with the UEFA Super Cup against Villarreal and Thomas Tuchel is overseeing an open training session.
It’s all fairly routine: a few stretches, light jogging, a little ball work. But then something rather significant happens: N’Golo Kante leaves the pitch after a brief chat with the medical staff on the touchline.
That sets off alarm bells within the Chelsea support. Injuries have become far too frequent for the French midfielder over the past two years and the last thing the Blues need is to lose the 30-year-old on the eve of the new season.
Such fears ease when Kante returns to the session. He then completes 60 minutes of the following day’s game, which Chelsea win via a penalty shootout. However, it soon emerges that Kante had played through the pain in Northern Ireland.
As a result, the midfielder is absent for the Blues’ Premier League opener – a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace – and is only fit enough for a late cameo in the victory over Arsenal. He starts against Liverpool at Anfield but lasts just 45 minutes before being replaced.
Two more games are missed. Three appearances amounting to 150 minutes follow. Then comes further misfortune for Kante as he tests positive for Covid-19 and is forced to self-isolate for 10 days. This rules him out of the defeat in Turin to Juventus and the victory over Southampton.
So far this season, Kante has played just 167 minutes of Premier League football. But Chelsea have still managed to take 16 points from a possible 21 and move to the top of the table. Impressive going considering the Blues have already travelled to Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham, in addition to facing Manchester City at home.
Yet there’s no doubt Chelsea are far more effective when Kante is in the side. He is one of the standout players in world football, after all.
“If you have N’Golo you have something everyone is looking for,” Tuchel explained last month after the World Cup winner struck against Tottenham Hotspur.
“You have everything you need in midfield: work rate, intensity, ball wins, skilful play, dribbles, half-field drives and even a goal.
“I see this every day in training and it is hard to believe how good he is. He is a unique guy, there are no more words from me. N’Golo is N’Golo, he is fantastic.”
For Kante, the international break came at a good time. It enabled him to see out his self-isolation without missing further matches and he made his return to training at the end of last week. He should be ready to take on Brentford when the Premier League resumes on Saturday.
A fully-fit Kante is a game-changer for Chelsea. His ability to cover ground and reclaim the ball is unrivalled. And that not only helps the Blues defensively but gives Tuchel’s side greater ability to spark transitions in the middle and attacking thirds.
Kante’s presence also brings out the best of Jorginho, who has been handed greater defensive responsibility in the absence of the French star. Per FBRef, Jorginho’s tackles per 90 (3.27) have greatly increased this term while he is also engaging in more pressures per 90 (23.1).
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That has seen his influence in possession decrease. The 29-year-old’s attempted passes per 90 have dropped from 69.9 per 90 last season to 53.6 per 90 this. He is also carrying the ball on fewer occasions (46.5 per 90) and for a shorter distance (65.8 yards per 90).
The backs-to-the-wall second half against Liverpool and difficult afternoon against Man City will have somewhat skewed Jorginho’s output in possession so far, but there’s no denying the Italian is far more effective alongside the indefatigable Kante.
Chelsea have made an impressive start to the campaign and the challenge now is to build on that in the month ahead, to prove to the rest of the Premier League that they’re in the title race for the long haul.
Kante’s return gives Chelsea every chance of doing that. He is, as Tuchel said, what every side is looking for.
Source by Football London