Thomas Tuchel has spoken in glowing terms about coaching N’Golo Kante at Chelsea and how he fought for years to have him on his team. And as his side took on Manchester United on Thursday, he would have been relieved the Frenchman was back to his efficient best.
The Frenchman put in a magnificent performance in the engine room for the Blues, mopping up several counter-attacks and finding the right spaces to gallop into. It was a display right out of the Kante textbook, the exact one that Tuchel studied for years in a bid to try and capture the timid Blues star.
“For years, I was fighting to have him in my team and now we did it the other way around – I came to his team,” Tuchel said at the start of the season. “It’s a coach’s dream to have N’Golo on your side because he makes things easy for everybody on the pitch.”
Finally, in January 2021, Tuchel was able to realise his ambition of working alongside Kante and try to sculpt him into a complete player. And he quickly realised his speciality is to be positioned in the right place at the right time, which makes him one of the very best box-to-box operators in world football. His humble attitude means he puts in the hard yards other players may not be willing to, and Tuchel heaped praise on his work in that area.
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“He’s such a nice guy, such a humble person and his mentality is to be everywhere on the pitch, to make things easy, to help out, to win the ball back,” Tuchel told UEFA.com. “I’m very, very happy that this kind of player shines so brightly suddenly, on this level of performances, because this is important for football that these kinds of players, who serve a team, are in the spotlight.”
Perhaps only Reece James outshone the World Cup winner at Old Trafford, where Chelsea showered the Man United goal with a litany of shots, only for their profligacy to cost them dearly they could only draw 1-1 with Ralf Rangnick’s underperforming side. Without Kante’s interventions, they could found themselves on the end of a thoroughly undeserved defeat.
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His critics – and there aren’t many – had suggested that Kante’s recent spate of injuries and fitness problems showed that his age was finally catching up with him. The evidence is there too, as the 31-year-old has started only 19 of Chelsea’s 33 league matches this season and he’s struggled with niggling injuries. Tuchel has made a concerted effort to protect him by rotating Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the second slot of the double pivot.
Former Blues man Emmanuel Petit warned earlier in April that Kante was “not immortal” and suggested his powers were declining. “You can see the last two years though, so many injuries. The machine isn’t the same anymore,” Petit told Genting Casinos. “He can bring the same energy and the same display on the pitch but not every three days.
“I don’t know how many miles he has run over six or seven years in England. He has probably run twice around the world. He’s not immortal, the way he plays physically, you can see he’s struggling.” But this performance proved to be a timely reminder of how Kante can produce the goods and run rings around the opposition, stifling the effectiveness of Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic.
When the day comes that Chelsea are forced to replace him, they will find it almost impossible to do so. Inevitable comparisons have been made to AS Monaco’s rising star Aurelien Tchouameni, who looks set to leave Ligue 1 this summer and is available for £40m. But there is not another ready-made version of Kante to step in – and with performances of this kind, Chelsea should appreciate the star for as long as they possibly can.