It is curious that N’Golo Kante should be so loath to see the spotlight fall on him. After all, everything he does involves wrestling attention back in his direction.
The hero of Leicester City’s impossible title triumph, France’s elevation to the best footballing nation on the earth, now he has a Champions League final to add to his resume of excellence. He may never have played better. This was the full repertoire of Kante, driving Chelsea forward on the counter one minute and whipping the ball of Riyad Mahrez in a dangerous spot moments later.
The numbers are outstanding. A game-leading 10 ball recoveries, 100 percent tackle success, a chance created and a simply ludicrous 57 percent success rate in aerial duels for the 5 foot 5 inch midfielder, dubbed too small by scouts in his homeland as he drifted down to the third tier of French football at the start of his career. And yet his statistics alone do not do justice to how Kante dictates a game even without the ball at his feet.
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There is gravity to him. As his influence grew on the contest you could sense City doing all they could to move possession as far away from Kante as possible. He was a roadblock to attacks, whenever the ball went near him he would just whisk possession away. It was not as though he had to thunder in and risk giving an opponent an avenue to goal. He looked utterly at ease when some of world football’s most heralded attackers were bearing down on him.
He was not alone in that regard. At Leicester they used to joke that having Kante on the pitch was like having an extra player. In Porto it was almost as if every Chelsea player had picked up that spark of energy and defensive quality that their No.7 provides. The list of Kante-esque moments was enviable: Antonio Rudiger’s superb block on Phil Foden, Cesar Azpilicueta and Ben Chilwell flinging themselves to clear low crosses away from City players lurking at the back post.
This is not the football that Thomas Tuchel made his name with at Mainz and Borussia Dortmund. One of the high priests of the high press has resorted to getting plenty of bodies deep and challenging opponents to break him down. Undeniably it is effective and it is not all last gasp. Manchester City had 60 percent of the ball but they still only registered seven shots on goal, forcing Edouard Mendy into just one save.
When Tuchel comes to look back on this game with a cooler mind in the days to come he will see his side kept Manchester City to 0.45 expected goals (xG) whilst registering 1.35 of their own. Only one of City’s shots had an xG value greater than 0.1, a late effort by Phil Foden that was bravely blocked by Andreas Christensen. For all that Pep Guardiola’s side dominated the ball they had a relatively meager 29 touches in the Chelsea box, over a quarter of which came in their desperate late chase for parity. Few of them were even in the sorts of spots to concern Tuchel.
Manchester City’s touches of the ball in the Chelsea penalty box during the Champions League final
As for Kante, he was so much more than just winning the ball back. He was why the game plan worked, because in a blink of an eye he — or of course the outstanding Mason Mount — could transform defense into attack. His drive through midfield might have given Chelsea the game winning moment far earlier than Ederson’s miscued heave upfield in the 97th minute. Christian Pulisic might have won the game in perfection fashion with a lightning counter in the closing period, his shot flashing just wide of the far post. He and Kai Havertz would never have been in a position to interplay and nearly double the Blues lead if Kante had not shepherded his side up the pitch and picked the right moment to fizz the ball into the American.
Even Joe Cole’s description of Kante as “Claude Makelele with extras” seemed to fall short. It suggests a player who is still defined by being a defensive midfielder with a few bolt ons. He is not a water carrier in front of the back five so much as a torrent that propels his side onwards.
If the penny is still dropping for some, Kante at least seems to have found the perfect match for him in a head coach who has told him that whether he liked the hugs he was getting or not he would be receiving them anyway. From day one Thomas Tuchel did not attempt to hide his adoration of Kante, the one player he “dreamed” of managing throughout his career. Ask Tuchel if there are great levels for his favorite player to hit he will ask you “where to?”
It is not enough just to admire a player such as Kante. It is incumbent on any manager to give him a platform to express his plethora of qualities. Tuchel gives him the canvas to draw the most immaculate self portrait. Time and time again this team gives Kante space to drive into, the right winger drifting infield and Reece James dropping backwards to give the 30-year-old a seam to move through. You can put a defender in his way but don’t think he won’t beat them. He ended this Champions League having attempted 32 take-ons, the 14th most this season. His success rate of 71.9 percent is remarkable, far ahead of the likes of Phil Foden, Kingsley Coman and Neymar without their array of trickery.
It is only goals scored that are missing from his game but when he is so effective at stopping the opponent from scoring them you could forgive him. Not least because when his team needs him most he delivers without fail. This was the second European final he has bent to his will and if the 2019 win over Arsenal in Baku might feel somewhat less of achievement, it is worth remembering he seemed a near certainty to miss the game 24 hours earlier. Need further evidence? Go back to Leicester’s title-winning run. In the biggest moments he was the best player on the park, against the Gunners again on Valentine’s Day he delivered as outstanding an all-round performance as you’ll ever see: dynamic in attack, remorseless in defense.
And yet, for all those performances, this might yet be his defining moment, the game people will instantly gravitate to when his name comes up in conversations about the great international players to grace the English game. And itt should. Only the excellence of Mount and Kai Havertz’s wonderful finish might keep this from going down as the Kante final.
Considering he does everything else so well, that he so often raises himself for the biggest games the only logical end point for Kante’s outstanding 2021 so far is that he gets the individual accolades you suspect he would be so reluctant to be garlanded with. Come the end of the year it would be a travesty if he is not at least on the podium for the Ballon d’Or.