When Chelsea were struggling under Frank Lampard, I was one of many who wondered what exactly they could get out of N’Golo Kante at 30. It was fair to ruminate if he could be the one-man typhoon in the center of midfield that he had been for Premier League-winning sides at Leicester and Chelsea. It was said of that miracle Leicester team in 2016 that they had a three-man midfield — Danny Drinkwater, Kante, and Kante. It’s kind of telling that since being separated from Kante, Drinkwater has gone from England international to now appearing at a gas station near you.
Kante had dealt with Mauricio Sarri taking over at Chelsea, needing to install Jorginho as the deepest midfielder, and shoving Kante all the places he didn’t seemingly belong. This was the anchor of the ridiculously talented French team that had just hoisted the World Cup, after all. Then it was Lampard who was more inclined to play Kante as the deepest midfielder...at times. Then he would move on to some other idea, and Kante was either farther up the field or not in the team at all. Then the cycle would begin again.
Well, Kante is back to his best, and he tore Real Madrid’s midfield to shreds, and then used those shreds to make a lovely collage for his children. And it would appear that Kante and Chelsea have now reaped the benefits of him playing in every midfield role the past couple of seasons.
In both legs against Madrid, Kante and Jorginho essentially were a two-man midfield, either shielding a five-man defense or supporting a five-man attack, as in Thomas Tuchel’s 3-5-2, where the wingbacks are either joining the centerbacks without the ball or joining the forwards with it for the formation to blend to a 3-2-5. In the first leg, only Toni Kroos had more shot-creating actions (FBREF.com defines these as the two actions leading to a shot, such as passing, dribbling, or drawing fouls) than Kante’s four. Kante was also second on Chelsea in progressive passes, according to FBREF.com, and completed the most dribbles.
The second leg was even more a Kante masterclass, capped off by his hockey-assisting the opening goal for Chelsea with this ridiculous touch to generate the run and pass…
Kante was second on Chelsea yesterday in progressive carries (trailing Christian Pulisic who only played the final 24 minutes and Madrid also found to be unplayable), second in key passes, leading in progressive passes, led in interceptions (also per FBREF.com). He was destroyer and creator at the same time, the roots of which lie in Sarri’s vision of him as more than just a roving stopper.
It certainly was easy to spot without any of the stats, as Madrid’s aging and stodgy midfield could only look on as Kante pinballed between, through, and around them as if the “multiball” light had turned on. Whereas Liverpool’s midfield just stared blankly at Luka Modrić and Kroos in the quarterfinal, Kante simply never let them get their head up or take a breath, and then ran past them with the ball as if they were practice dummies. Kroos and Modrić looked every bit of their mid-30s age, while Kante looked like he was 25 again.
Manchester City will be a different kettle of fish in the final, as whatever combination they use in midfield is certain to be exponentially more springy than Madrid’s, and will also have the benefit of taking their foot off the gas in the league until the final, with the league essentially wrapped up (City and Chelsea will face each other Saturday with City clinching the title with a win, in what will be a masterclass in poker faces). Chelsea still have a top four place to lock down.
But with Kante in this form, it could easily be the case they’ll lock up their place in the Champions League next year by just winning this year’s.