Chelsea midfielder overlord who conquered Europe

This will be remembered as the night Manchester City sent an excess of midfielders, a tripling of midfielders, with one team obstructing every hole with the essence of the midfielder. In an odd twist, Chelsea did much the same, albeit in a more focused fashion. Enter, N’Golo Kanté, the one-man midfielder overload.

There was a moment in the second half at the Estádio do Dragão where Kanté gasped and purred around the plastic seats, the feeling of a man taking the end of the game in hand.

Riyad Mahrez had embarked on a fake run through the edge of the Chelsea area, looking for space for a left-footed shot. Kanté waited, waited a little longer, then removed the ball so cleanly Mahrez continued to run in the same direction, like a riderless horse galloping down the winning straight. And yes. They were gasps for an interception.

But then it’s Kanté, a footballer so clean in his positioning, his timing, his movement, that on nights like these, he transforms the deep control of the midfielder into a kind of physical art.

Look at the numbers and possession and territory controlled by Manchester City on Saturday night. Watch the game and it was never domination, not with Kanté there. You can play in his part of the field. But there is no comfort here, no security.

Chelsea’s progress to a second Champions League title has been marked by unity and clarity of goals. Thomas Tuchel’s side have beaten the champions of Spain, the 13-time royal winners and now the most powerful team of players in Europe. Throughout this Kanté has been a constant in the knockout stages, an unstarred and all-natural field general, and also a note of something else.

Ahead of Saturday’s final, all discussions had centered on completing Manchester City’s draft, Pep Guardiola’s 10-year destiny cycle. It was the story of a dominant tactical style, a soft power project, a victory story that seemed to offer its own cause and effect arc.

What does Chelsea mean? What model is there here? Employ a lot of managers? Talent-hoard attacking players? One of the more intriguing parts is its lack of an obvious narrative. There is no logic, no design, just a series of interventions managed by experts. Get a really good trainer. Fixed panic on the hoof. Play without fear. Oh. And make sure N’Golo is on the team.

It has been six years now since Kanté completed his late bloom from French football’s third tier to the Premier League. Leicester signed him on the data. His numbers on tackles, turnovers and the rest were off the normal curve. Something strange was happening. Either the numbers were wrong or this low-key 5-foot-6-inch central midfielder was simply playing at the wrong level, a loophole in the system.

The 30-year-old now has the feeling of a fast-forwarding footballer in a state of completeness. The Champions League makes him four major honors under four Chelsea managers, a player of the year and a World Cup.

Since Tuchel took over, Kanté has only played two defeats, the FA Cup final and the return leg against Porto. Kanté does not score and does not make the final pass. He does not fight his chest and assert his own status as a leader-legend. But the same things keep happening. All he does is win.

Mobile brain

The numbers were good again on Saturday night. Kanté has won all his tackles, made two interceptions, three clearances, four heads.

More than that, there was also the spectacle, the powerfully reassuring sight of this dominant and upright figure, the way he times his interventions, the way he keeps the ball to allow his defense to reform behind him, or the quickly release when the upcoming game demands it.

Kanté is not just a tackler or a runner, he is a mobile brain, a cohesive agent. More revealing, he is the false system of nine human kryptonite that continues, 15 years after its Pep-led rebirth, to baffle more rigid defensive structures.

Kanté is a living countermeasure, still alive in Porto against spaces where his defenders were trained in search of someone to score. False nine, you say? Meet the Chelsea False Four, a midfielder who sees those middle spaces on the other side, who also knows how they work.

With Kanté and Mount operating in their own parts of the pitch, Chelsea have the game on a constant chokehold

The other thing Kanté does is improve players close to him. He didn’t cover Reece James so much in Porto as he lingered nearby, only occasionally offering a double barrier against Raheem Sterling.

James brilliantly defended himself one-on-one and showed the same assertive calm to the Kanté. It has been rumored that he could be left out of the England Euros squad in the right-backs crush. While he’s at it, maybe Gareth Southgate should consider tying his own shoelaces and repeatedly pushing his prime goalkeeper in the eye.

Mason Mount produced a great assist for the only goal of the game. And like with Kanté you have to be present in the stadium to appreciate his movement and his intelligence as a cover player. With Kanté and Mount operating in their own parts of the pitch, Chelsea have the game on constant choke, opponents are still under a basic level of ambient pressure.

In Kanté’s case, those levels were maintained in Porto while bearing the injuries that turned his season into a mess of pain management and forced absence. He needs rest. The Premier League season starts again a month after the Euros.

And for Tuchel, there is now an entirely separate job of building a team with the deepest gears to continue winning throughout a full championship season. The basis of this mature Tuchel Chelsea – and he should have at least until November – will surely emerge from the young players.

But as all successful Chelsea coaches have plugged in, Tuchel included, Kanté is the great hidden gift of this group of players, a common thread through successive mini-eras.

It seems odd now that Kanté has only played 40 games at Leicester. For all the glory of this season alone, Chelsea has essentially been his club career, Saturday night in Porto his peak. – Guardian

About Geraldine Higgins

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