The nadir for N’Golo Kanté came when he found himself desperately chasing Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling moments after giving possession to Kevin De Bruyne. Coming a week after a poor performance from Kanté when Chelsea collapsed against Arsenal on Boxing Day, it was not a dignified look. The midfielder’s error exposed Chelsea on the break and although the Frenchman did his best to delay Sterling, he was powerless to stop the counterattack ending with De Bruyne making it 3-0 to City, laying bare Chelsea’s chaotic defending under Frank Lampard.
Kanté was struggling with every aspect of his game. He looked worn down after expending all that energy on winning major honours for club and country since 2016. Time seemed to have caught up with Kanté, who had struggled with little niggles ever since playing through the pain of a knee injury when Chelsea beat Arsenal in the Europa League final in 2019.
The body no longer seemed to be co-operating. A player who once marauded around midfield, exhausting opponents with his indomitable energy, was becoming unreliable. No pre-season before the 2019-20 campaign inevitably took a toll: Kanté was restricted to 28 appearances last season and did not feature again for Lampard after the defeat to City because of a hamstring problem. He was still recovering when Chelsea replaced Lampard with Thomas Tuchel at the end of January.
At that stage it was hard not to wonder whether Chelsea had seen the best of Kanté. He missed Tuchel’s first game and looked rusty after returning to the squad. He was off the pace after coming on as a late substitute during the 1-0 win at Tottenham in February and was average when he made his first start under Tuchel in the nervy victory over Barnsley in the fifth round of FA Cup.
With Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic impressing as Tuchel’s double sixes in central midfield, Chelsea could have been forgiven if they were starting to regret rejecting Internazionale’s offer for Kante last summer. It may well have been the perfect time to sell given that the pandemic is expected to affect spending this summer. Clubs such as Real Madrid, who have courted Kanté, are unlikely to be capable of affording a 29-year-old whose £290,000-a-week contract runs out in 2023.
Yet when Tuchel arrived at Chelsea, Kanté was one of the players who most excited him. The German wanted the France midfielder when he managed Paris Saint-Germain and appreciated his quality. Tuchel was ready to wait, easing Kante in slowly, glimpsing signs of his ball-winning abilities during last month’s draw with Southampton.
It was worth persevering. Kante was a substitute when Chelsea beat Atlético Madrid in the Champions League three days later and started next to Kovacic when they drew with Manchester United last weekend. The former Leicester midfielder was getting sharper and although his passing was erratic against United, he did well enough to stay in the side when Chelsea visited Liverpool on Thursday night.
Something clicked. This was Kanté at his most disciplined and effective, constantly winning back possession and controlling midfield alongside the equally impressive Jorginho. Kanté kept shutting doors in Liverpool’s face and there were also reminders that a player who helped France win the World Cup in 2018 can actually use the ball, not least when he created Mason Mount’s winner with an accurate pass from deep.
“It was clear from the first second of training what this guy is capable of doing,” Tuchel said. “It’s unbelievable. You see his intensity in the physical report after matches and you think they may have tracked two players and put it into the same sheet. He’s unbelievable in what he delivers in terms of intensity, in terms of ball recoveries, his devotion to the group is world class.”
Tuchel, whose side are fourth before hosting fifth-placed Everton on Monday, is not the first manager to wonder whether there are two Kantés on the pitch. He knows, though, that he needs to manage the workload carefully. After starting against United and Liverpool, Kanté could return to the bench against Everton.
“He has come from an injury so he will not play now every 90 minutes before the international break,” Tuchel said. “We will manage him. We have to take care that he is fit until the international break and when he comes back we hope he has the momentum where we can rely on him in every game.”
It is a tantalising prospect. The transformation since Lampard’s exit is remarkable. Chelsea remain unbeaten under Tuchel and opponents cannot get at a defence that has conceded twice in 10 games.
A fit and firing Kanté would make it even harder to find a way through.