A World Cup, FA Cup and two-time Premier League winning defensive midfielder, on a new, improved five-year-contract, forced to play an attacking role? Maurizio Sarri got it woefully wrong against Tottenham Hotspur when it came to his midfield and, most importantly, when it came to N’Golo Kante.
The 5 foot 6 French wizard is magical in a defensive role, it’s part of the reason Leicester City were able to pull off their remarkable fairy tale in the 2015-16 season going from 5,000-1 outsiders to champions.
His tenacious work rate brought the best out of a Blues side mentally destroyed under Jose Mourinho when Antonio Conte took charge and snatched the Boulogne product from the Foxes. Now that Italian’s gone, the new one at the helm must understand why Kante is reportedly Chelsea’s highest earner.
Against Tottenham, the Blues had no plan ‘B’ to combat how Spurs burst out of the gates yet held their shape defensively. A solid back line with the support of Eric Dier, Moussa Sissoko and even Christian Eriksen meant that the Lilywhites had the Pensioners covered whenever they tried to break.
Eden Hazard on the left, neutralised, Willian on the right and Alvaro Morata as the solo-striker, his usual self, hiding offside or in the shadows and hauled off in the second half. Chelsea’s three options to score and create chances all nullified.
But in a midfield consisting of three central players, all better suited to a deeper position, it was the little Frenchman that was driving through the heart of the pitch, trying to make something happen.
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Kante played the full ninety minutes at Wembley and achieved a WhoScored rating of just 6.6 out of 10, yet that was still the Blues joint-fifth highest – only Cesar Azpilicueta, Hazard, Kepa Arrizabalaga and Willian edged the former Fox.
The 36-cap international – who Transfermarkt value at £72million – was tasked with creating a spark, all the while Ross Barkley watched on from the bench as Chelsea fell behind to two early goals without much to show for themselves.
By the full-time whistle, the 27-year-old had recorded 66 touches and spread the ball with 40 of his attempted 48 passes, but only once did that produce a key chance.
Kante is not the guy to create; he is the guy tasked with getting the ball back – and he did. No player on the pitch on Saturday evening intercepted the ball as much as the Frenchman’s seven – Azpilicueta was joint second with three, the same as Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic combined.
Sarri’s first Premier League loss since taking the Stamford Bridge job must be a wake-up call that ‘Sarri-ball’ cannot, and will not, last in the long run if Kante is the one asked to be creative.