Football News

Never doubt N’Golo Kanté – Cesc Fabregas praises his title-winning midfield partner as Chelsea hold Real Madrid

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:42, 27 April 2021

Chelsea take a minor advantage into their Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid thanks to a 1-1 draw in which N’Golo Kante was one of Thomas Tuchel’s many stars.

Kante, who turned 30 in March, has had a strange season for Chelsea in which he has both seen his future thrown into doubt and his importance to the Blues stressed.

Under Frank Lampard his quality was questioned having been played across the midfield both in a more offensive role and also in a single-holding role, neither of which will play to his strengths. Playing in the single-holding role, Kante was being asked to be the sole protector of the defence. Although the Frenchman is renowned for his defensive abilities, he is not a holding midfielder, also rendering complete comparisons with Casemiro fairly void. It was his performances in this role that had some questioned Kante’s fit at Chelsea and whether the club would be better to cash in on the Frenchman whose value would only drop as he gets older. But Kante remained and, eventually, was put back into his best position.

In Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, Kante was part of a two-man midfield alongside Danny Drinkwater for the Foxes and Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas for the Blues. To borrow the phrase from former Leicester Head of Recruitment Steve Walsh, it was one midfielder with Kante either side.

It wasn’t until Tuchel took over at Chelsea that Kante returned to a midfield two, partnering either Jorginho or Mateo Kovacic. In this role he does still do the large proportion of the defensive work, but he can share the load with his partner. In recent weeks it has been Jorginho and the Italian international has thrived, proving his own doubters wrong and showing defensive solidity. That change from Jorginho has allowed Kante to push forward more freely and be the driving force of Chelsea’s midfield, something that was on full display against Real Madrid on Tuesday.

Before the game there were comparisons between Kante and Casemiro on BT Sport’s coverage and while the two players do occupy very different roles in their respective teams, it didn’t stop Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole picking the Frenchman over his Madrid counterpart for their hypothetical teams.

“Kante, in any team,” Joe Cole said. “He’s the best at what he does and you can build a team around him. He’s like having two men in his position.”

Rio Ferdinand agreed, saying: “I think I’d take Kante, he covers the ground like no other, retrieves the ball brilliantly.”

Even Steve McManaman, who picked Casemiro, hailed Kante as the better player. “The way I would want to play, I’d want Casemiro,” he said.

“I think Kante is a better player but I like the fact that Casemiro plays in a different style.”

So the praise was already high before the game, and then Kante put in one of his trademark monumental performances in a big match for Chelsea. The Frenchman was, quite literally, everywhere. He completed more take-ons (six) than any other player on the pitch, showing the driving runs on the ball that he has added to his game more recently – using those more attacking spells under Maurizio Sarri and Frank Lampard as a way to improve the one previous flaw in his game. Not only did he complete more take-ons than any other player, but he actually completed more than the entire Real Madrid team combined (five).

Kante also contested more duels than any other player (21), had 79 touches and completed 88% of his passes. His reading of the game allowed Kante to find the pockets of space that Real Madrid were looking to pass into, winning the ball high up the pitch for Chelsea to keep the pressure on their hosts. Without the Frenchman, Real Madrid’s own midfield may have had a more enjoyable night on the ball, as they previously did against Liverpool in the quarter-finals.

Watching the game from Monaco, Kante’s former midfield partner in that 2016/17 Premier League title-winning campaign Fabregas was one of the Frenchman’s many admirers, mirroring Walsh’s now-famous statement.

“N’Golo has always been a big game player,” he tweeted.

“Never doubt him. He plays for two.”

Kante was awarded Man of the Match for his performance in Madrid, another silencing moment to all those who did dare to doubt him at any stage over the past few years. But Kante will not care about the award as he prepares for another big match in the return leg next week (via a Premier League fixture against Fulham).