In the end it was a stultifying goalless stalemate at the Bridge, with Chelsea and Manchester United playing out their second 0-0 of the Premier League campaign.
It was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination but the two managers may reflect on a point well earned once the dust settles, as they both aim to achieve top-four finishes and secure Champions League football for next season.
On the day, there were few standout performers, with the attacks largely flattering to deceive and one or two jittery moments further back. But, one player who really came to the fore and impressed with every tick of the clock was N’Golo Kante, a man who has found regular playing opportunities scarce under Tuchel.
At one stage the Frenchman was the first name on the Blues’ team sheet, but having picked up a slight hamstring tweak upon Tuchel’s arrival at the end of January, Chelsea’s convalescing superstar has been restricted to appearances off the bench, coming on in the closing stages to see games out.
Thomas Tuchel is the first Chelsea manager to not concede a single goal in his opening four Premier League home games.
Not even José Mourinho managed it. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/tolCiJ6thw
— William Hill (@WilliamHill) February 28, 2021
It is not a role familiar to Kante, whose all-action, high-velocity exploits in the centre of the pitch have seen him rise to the top of the game and enter the defensive midfield pantheon, where his name sits proudly alongside those of esteemed players like Claude Makelele, another Chelsea legend.
However, on Sunday Kante was given the nod ahead of Jorginho, whose partnership with Mateo Kovacic has been a cornerstone of Tuchel’s early success in the capital. His objective was clear: man-mark Bruno Fernandes and thwart his creative drive.
The Frenchman carried out the plan to the letter, neutralising the Portuguese with a performance redolent of his early Chelsea days when he would cover every blade of grass and suffocate the opposition with a terrier-like tenacity. He was full of beans, and Fernandes struggled to get a foothold on proceedings.
Such was Kante’s industry that he finished the game with a match-high seven tackles (while winning possession cleanly with 100%of those), four interceptions, and having not been dribbled past once. It was the kind of defensive performance that would have had Italian coaches from the ’60s weak at the knees.
N'Golo Kanté made more tackles (7) and more interceptions (4) than any other player on the pitch during Chelsea vs Man Utd.
LOOK AT THE HEAT MAP. 😳 pic.twitter.com/NsoPSxGlzr
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 28, 2021
This was just Kante’s second Premier League start under Tuchel, having completed the full 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw with Southampton last week, but he more than vindicated his manager’s faith in him; few players have kept a lid on Fernandes this term, but Kante claimed a priceless scalp.
He now ranks sixth in the overall Premier League standings for tackles (64) and interceptions (48) this season, and will no doubt cause Tuchel plenty of (wanted) problems when it comes to his team selection. On the basis of his performance at the weekend, though, Kante is surely ‘undroppable’ at present.
If you need an indication of just how out-of-touch Fernandes was from his usual game, the Man Utd talisman failed to complete a single take-on, while Antonio Rudiger completed three and even Kante completed one, capping off what was a quite brilliant all-round performance.
Whether Tuchel reverts to type and returns to what has been his go-to midfield so far with Jorginho and Kovacic remains to be seen, but if this game on Sunday has illustrated anything, it’s that Kante is still very much one of the game’s best defensive midfielders — and he still has plenty to offer Chelsea.