N’Golo Kante injury: Chelsea’s star midfielder dominated Tottenham, Blues will be vulnerable without him

It was in the eighth minute of what may yet be known as the second Battle of Stamford Bridge (or third if we’re taking things back to the Viking invasions of England), a 2-2 draw between the hosts Chelsea and visiting Tottenham Hotspur, that Thomas Tuchel lost his rag with N’Golo Kante. Chelsea’s midfielder had just judged Ben Davies’ pass into midfield to perfection, slipping in ahead of Heung-min Son to win possession for his side just inside the Tottenham half. Kai Havertz, Chelsea’s unconventional center forward, was quick to react, and had a step on Tottenham’s defense, but Kante’s subsequent pass was undercooked. As is his wont, Tuchel bounced up and down on the touchline in a fit of rage.

He would not need to do so again. One might contend that that was the final sloppy moment Kante would deliver in the next 76. He was dominant. So were Chelsea.

Want more soccer? Paramount+ is the only place to watch every minute of every Serie A match this season, not to mention select games in Italian. Sign up now with offer code ITALY to get a special one month free trial. A subscription also gives you access to other sports content including every UEFA Champions League and Europa League match, the NFL on CBS, and countless movies and shows. Get it all free for one month with promo code ITALY.

Naturally the two were intrinsically linked. The reason Chelsea were able to set the terms of engagement so dramatically in their favor is because Kante — ably aided by the no less impressive Jorginho — was able to cover all of Tottenham’s escape routes. Five ball recoveries, an interception, a tackle and two of four loose ball duels won are hardly earth shattering numbers for one of the most dominant midfield forces of the last decade. But, what mattered most was where those numbers were attained.

Kante was the choke point on the edge of the Tottenham third, the port of first call whenever a Spurs defender was trying to repel pressure on the edge of the box. It was because Chelsea won the battle in the middle third of the pitch that they ended the match with 302 final third touches to Spurs’ 83. This was pinball table levels of field tilt.

It was hard to argue with Tuchel’s assessment that Chelsea had been the game’s dominant side; even Antonio Conte could not. Reece James and Kalidou Koulibaly might have been the headline grabbers in that regard, but the player who allowed the hosts to assert themselves over their rivals was Kante.

All the more concerning then that he may be sidelined for quite some time. It happened just at the moment Kante seemed to be most at ease doing Kante things. The midfielder beat Yves Bissouma to a loose ball just outside the Chelsea box, and, flicking it away, he rode a slight clip to his lower leg and seemed set to drive his side up the pitch. A split second later he was on the ground grasping his thigh, his race clearly run.

Craving even more coverage of the world’s game? Listen below and follow ¡Qué Golazo! A Daily CBS Soccer Podcast where we take you beyond the pitch and around the globe for commentary, previews, recaps and more.  

In a press conference where Tuchel, after his confrontation wit Spurs boss Conte, gave the impression of a playground trouble maker laughing off a lunchtime ruckus, the one downbeat note came when he was asked about one of his favorite footballers. “It seems another muscle injury, the hamstring,” he said. “He said he feels it pretty strong. So no good news.”

Chelsea might have dropped those two points anyway with Kante on the pitch. They had had the chances to kill the game off; the fact that they did not take them on such a febrile occasion allowed the contest to descend into the sort of free for all that makes the Premier League so thrilling. Equally it is also the case that the introduction of Richarlison just before the hour offered Spurs more options to hit with long balls over the top, breaking some of the pressure Chelsea’s midfield had exerted on them.

But they may well drop more without a player Chelsea’s manager described as “our Mo Salah, our [Virgil] Van Dijk, our [Kevin] De Bruyne, our Neymar, our Kylian Mbappe.” At his best Kante can even look like a fair few of those players rolled into one… and you wouldn’t mind see him try a few of the flicks and tricks Neymar specializes in. While describing Kante in such glowing terms late last season, Tuchel claimed it was a “miracle” that his side had achieved third without their talisman.

And yet they are having to get used to doing more and more without Kante. That is why many — including me — had such a pessimistic assessment of Chelsea preseason. There is perhaps no other team in the Premier League where you simply have to price in that their best player won’t be available. In each of his first four Premier League seasons the Frenchman logged roughly 3,000 minutes, the equivalent of 34 full matches across a 38 game campaign. In the last three he has only got above 2,000 once; at around 1,700 in 2019-20 and 2021-22 this was a player who was broadly unavailable as frequently as he was available. The hamstring issue he suffered on Sunday would be the 15th injury the 31 year old has suffered since the start of 2019-20. A great many of them have been muscular issues.

Meanwhile Mateo Kovacic is sidelined with a knee issue. Chelsea could find themselves heading to Elland Road for a clash against old rivals Leeds with Jorginho, a repurposed Mason Mount and Conor Gallagher, hardly the most natural of fits if they play a back three, as their only midfield options. A tough test that, one all the more difficult if Tuchel is suspended and not on the sidelines.

One might wonder why Chelsea did not address this earlier in the summer. For all the satisfaction that there is to be gained for possibly sweeping Frenkie de Jong out of Manchester United’s clutches, as the latest rumors suggest is possible, he is a player who could have made both an immediate impact this season and around whom the Blues could build a midfield after next summer, when both Jorginho and Kante are out of contract.

Equally, there is a persuasive argument for why Tuchel and Todd Boehly did not look for their post-Kante option in the transfer market. He may well not exist. It is perfectly plausible that in 10 years pundits will say about Chelsea what they said about Arsenal for so long, “they’ve never really replaced Patrick Vieira,” a task infinitely easier said than done. Players of Kante’s quality come around infrequently indeed. Sometimes all you can do is make the most of the games you have with them.

 Source link

Back to top button