N’Golo Kanté was unlucky the day he lifted the Europa League in Baku in the spring of 2019. He had sprained his knee five days before the game and his coach, Maurizio Sarri, eager as he was to win the first title of his career, made him play the same. Injured, the Frenchman sacrificed himself to comply, but something in his body began to suffer. Between 2015 and 2019 he had played everything and had won almost everything: a Premier with Leicester, another Premier with Chelea, and the World Cup with France. When he returned from Azerbaijan with the old UEFA Cup under his arm, he was completely exhausted. It probably took a year and a half to recover. Then, the misfortune was for Atlético, who this Wednesday, at 29, found him splendid at Stamford Bridge.
There are influential players due to their precision or the surprise that their ingenuity produces. Kanté transforms the teams in which he plays with a combination of criteria and a sense of order that multiplies thanks to the unusual volume of his activity. The heat map that recorded Kanté’s interventions in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 indicates that the midfielder contacted the ball in all quadrants of the field. He was, after Azpilicueta (78), the player who gave the most passes in the match (71); He was the one who made the most passes on the Atlético field, including the rojiblancos footballers (55), and he was the one who recovered the most balls (15).
“Training him is a pleasure,” Tuchel said, looking amazed after the game; “It is a great gift because in the field it always offers solutions. And don’t underestimate his quality of handling the ball to get out of the pressure. If you play with him you play with eleven and a half players. The intensity it gives you is unique ”.
Kanté made Tuchel’s tactical slogans possible. The coach emphasized the day before that Chelsea should apply massive pressure not only to defend but, above all, to attack with more regularity and clarity. Without interiors and midfielders who plot a network of passes to reach the finish with an advantage, the system of five defenders proposed by the German (5-2-3) can be a pressure roller that, given the accumulation of pass options in the exit of the ball, also makes the pressure to the contrary difficult. Atlético seemed tired in the midst of the whirlwind. Not because he ran less, but because he distributed the efforts unevenly and several of his players ended up asphyxiated. According to the UEFA meter, the Spanish team traveled a cumulative total of 114.8 kilometers for Chelsea’s 114.6. The key was not physical superiority, but organizational difference.
Where Simeone, in his words, ordered the pressure with six men and reserved the two center-backs and the two pivots to protect Oblak; Chelsea made the pressure with ten. There were actions in which Koke and Saúl stayed behind instead of accompanying Carrasco, João Félix, Llorente and Suárez. That did not happen at Chelsea, where Kanté did not allow the lines to be separated.
Obsessed with promoting a dynamism only achievable through great long distance runners, Tuchel requested the signing of Kanté when he was coaching PSG. As of Wednesday, however, he had been the fourth player least used by the German, who was found injured when he signed the contract at the end of January. His predecessor, Frank Lampard, had employed him irregularly. In part, because after the final of the Europa League he suffered 11 physical problems that forced him to leave and in part, because Lampard had judged him more as a specialist in stealing balls than as a complete interior.
Lampard considered Kanté’s ideal position in his 4-3-3 to be pivot because he lacked the coordination and fine control that advanced midfielder play required. This led to a double error, according to a person who works for Chelsea’s technical secretariat. On the one hand, to think that it is enough to have class, such as Mount or Kovacic, to prove driving conditions. Second, marginalize Jorginho, the best pure midfielder on the squad.
On Wednesday N’Golo Kanté finally enjoyed the order he needed to show off his full potential. He was decisive in defense and also in attack: Chelsea’s two goals – two counterattacks – came from a first pass from him.