Chelsea’s shock defeat to Crystal Palace has seen the first questions in weeks of Chelsea’s title chances. In reality, it would still take a seismic collapse for the Blues to finish anywhere other than first this season, though.
There is one factor that could cause a late hiccup and another meander in the title race. The form of N’Golo Kante.
Kante has reigned supreme in the middle third through 2015/16 and now 2016/17. On course for successive Premier League medals and the odds-on favourite for Player of the Year, Kante has entered the footballing elite. Critics continue – often missing the entire point of his game – and some will still champion Eden Hazard as Chelsea’s most important player, but Kante has been the key that has unlocked another title winning campaign for the Blues.
As he did at Leicester, Kante enables the system Chelsea play and gives his manager, Antonio Conte, great flexibility. With Victor Moses missing out last weekend, Conte opted to field more of a 3-5-2 with Cesc Fabregas in a free role in midfield. The 3-4-3 will surely return soon, but the choice to play Fabregas gave Chelsea greater fluidity in possession and a creative edge. He was not at his best, but he didn’t need to be as Conte’s side dominated the ball but were hit by two early sucker punches by Palace.
Form, even for metronomic performers like Kante, can occasionally dip. He does not get rests and he has been the ball-winning heartbeat of two high-intensity sides. Not to mention the immensely pressurised international tournament he played in last summer. If fatigue is ever to be an issue for the scurrying Frenchman, it will be in the closing weeks of this campaign, and his recent performance for France in their defeat to Spain over the international break might be cause for concern on this front.
Although several of Chelsea’s underachievers from last season have markedly improved their output this time around, the loss of Kante to injury or a decline in his performances would see Conte’s side requiring reinvention. So much of their play is dependent on his ability to rapidly win the ball back, if they lose that they have no viable alternative in midfield and would quickly find their back three exposed more often.
Chelsea would not be where they are without Kante. He is one of a kind in world football, in fact. The former Leicester man has been the glue to hold this Chelsea squad together and that just emphasises how detrimental a drop in his performance level could be for Conte and the Stamford Bridge faithful.
What a player he is, though. For Chelsea, however, having a player so vital and so immensely influential brings risk. They lean on Kante more heavily than anyone could ever realise and we may only find that out once he is out of action for a period of time.