The Champions League final of 2021 will be remembered as the night when Manchester City sent out an excess of midfielders, a tripling-up of midfielders, a team clogging every hole with essence of midfielder. In an odd twist Chelsea did pretty much the same, albeit in more targeted fashion. Enter, N’Golo Kanté, the one-man midfield overload.
There was a moment in the second half at the Estadio do Dragão when Kanté drew gasps and purrs around the plastic seats, a sense of one man taking the endgame into his own hands.
Riyad Mahrez had set off on a feinting run across the edge of the Chelsea area, seeking space for a left-foot shot. Kanté waited, waited a little longer, then took the ball away so cleanly Mahrez just kept on running in the same direction, like a riderless horse cantering on down the winning straight. And yes. These were gasps for an interception.
But then, this is Kanté, a footballer so clean in his positioning, his timing, his movement, that on nights like these he makes deep midfield control into a kind of physical art form.
Look at the numbers and Manchester City controlled possession and territory on Saturday night. Watch the game and this never felt like domination, not with Kanté there. You can play in in his part of the pitch. But there is no comfort here, no safety.
Chelsea’s progress to a second Champions League title has been marked by unity and clarity of purpose. Thomas Tuchel’s team have beaten the champions of Spain, the regal old 13-time winners and now the most powerful squad of players in Europe. Through this Kanté has been a constant in the knockout stages, an unstarry, entirely natural general-in-the-field, and also a note of something else.
Before Saturday’s final all the talk had been about the completion of the Manchester City project, the 10-year destiny-cycle of Pep Guardiola. This was the story of a dominant tactical style, a soft power project, a victory narrative that seemed offer its own arc of cause and effect.
What does Chelsea winning it mean? What model is there here? Employ lots of managers? Talent-hoard attacking players? One of the most intriguing parts is its lack of any obvious narrative. There is no logic, no design, just a series of expertly managed interventions. Get a very good coach. Panic-fix on the hoof. Play without fear. Oh. And make sure N’Golo’s in the team.
It is seven years now since Kanté completed his late bloom from the third tier of French football to the Premier League. Leicester signed him on the data. His numbers on tackles, turnovers and the rest were outside the normal curve. Something odd was happening. Either the numbers were off, or this understated 5ft 6in central midfielder was simply playing at the wrong level, a lacuna in the system.
Aged 30, there is a feeling of now a footballer fast-forwarded into a state of completeness. The Champions League makes it four major honours under four Chelsea managers, one player of the year gong and one World Cup. Since Tuchel took over Kanté has played in only two defeats, the FA Cup final and the second leg game against Porto. Kanté doesn’t score or make the final pass. He doesn’t beat his chest or assert his own leader-legend status. But the same things keep happening around. All he does is win.
The numbers were good again on Saturday night. Kanté won all his tackles, made two interceptions, three clearances, four headers. More than this there was the spectacle too, the powerfully reassuring sight of that commanding and upright figure, the way he times his interventions, the way he keeps the ball to allow his defence to form again behind him, or releases it quickly when the game ahead demands it.
Kanté isn’t simply a tackler or a runner, he’s a mobile brain, an agent of cohesion. Most tellingly he’s human kryptonite to the false nine system that continues, 15 years on from its Pep-led renaissance, to baffle more rigid defensive structures.
Kanté is a living countermeasure, always alive in Porto to the spaces when his defenders were drawn out in search of someone to mark. False nine you say? Meet Chelsea’s false four, a midfielder who sees those in-between spaces from the other side, who also knows how they work.
The other thing Kanté does is make players close to him better. He didn’t so much cover Reece James in Porto as linger close by, only occasionally offering a double barrier against Raheem Sterling.
James defended brilliantly one on one and showed that same Kanté-style assertive calm. There has been talk he might be cut from England’s Euros squad in the crush of right-backs. Forse, while he’s at it, Gareth Southgate should consider tying his own shoelaces together and repeatedly poking his first choice goalkeeper in the eye.
Mason Mount produced a fine pass for game’s only goal. And as with Kanté it is necessary to be present in the stadium to appreciate his movement and his intelligence as a covering player. With Kanté and Mount functioning in their own parts of the pitch Chelsea have the game on a constant strangle, opponents subject always to a base level of ambient pressure.
In Kanté’s case those levels were maintained in Porto while carrying the injuries that have turned his season into a mess of pain management and enforced absence. He needs a rest. The Premier League season starts again a month after the Euros.
And for Tuchel there is an entirely separate job now of building a team with the deeper gears to keep winning through a full league season. The basis of that mature Tuchel Chelsea – and he should get at least until November – will surely emerge from the younger players.
But as every successful Chelsea manager has twigged, Tuchel included, Kanté is the great hidden gift in this group of players, a binding thread through successive mini-eras. It seems odd now that Kanté only ever played 40 games at Leicester. For all the glory of that single season, Chelsea has basically been his club career, Saturday night in Porto its apex.