Chelsea’s sports medicine team could not have a designed a better game for N’Golo Kante to take the next step in his recovery. Kante played 90 minutes without compromise, but did not need to go too far to do that.
Jorginho is such an impressive vice-captain. He not only sees the current game three, four or fifty moves ahead, he’s looking into the next game to do the right thing for his club and teammates. In the 89′ against Watford, he wasted time not only to help Chelsea secure a 2-1 win, but to earn his fifth yellow card of the season so N’Golo Kante could return to the lineup against a team that would not require much physical exertion from Kante’s whole-body, whole-pitch skill set and attitude. Knowing that Crystal Palace have the fourth-lowest possession and the fewest shots in the Premier League, Jorginho calculated that they would be the perfect opponent for N’Golo Kante to get a complete game without too much risk of reinjury or exposure.
Perhaps that’s giving Jorginho a bit too much credit. Whatever led to N’Golo Kante playing his first minutes since November 6, the fixture against Crystal Palace could not have been any better for him.
Kante was able to stay between Chelsea’s defensive and attacking midfield lines in a game with little back and forth play. His protective, defensive inclinations allowed Mateo Kovacic to take a larger role supporting the attack. Kovacic could shuttle back and forth setting himself up for runs through Palace’s lines, ultimately running towards the defensive line to draw players towards him, opening space for a teammate to run off the line. This paid off in Chelsea’s first goal, which was the result of the Blues finally figuring out the combination of tempo and movement to send Tammy Abraham in one-on-one with Vicente Guaita. Kovacic had been probing with runs like that throughout the game, and could do so knowing the Blues were covered on defence.
Kante’s individual presence in those situations and his partnership with Mateo Kovacic in transitions gave the Blues’ attackers – Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic, Willian and Tammy Abraham – a platform from which to push forward.
He set the back stop for the attacking line, minimizing how far they would retreat By setting this boundary, Kante pinned Crystal Palace’s lines in place, which allowed Mason Mount to run between them throughout the first half.
Kante also allowed Chelsea to have a full complement of players attacking set pieces. Kante was the lone player covering a potential counter-attack during Chelsea’s corner kicks. His speed and certainty – compared to Cesar Azpilicueta and Jorginho, who would usually cover deep in his absence – let the centrebacks and full-backs stay higher up the pitch in those situations, increasing the press the Blues could apply.
And he did all of this without having to tax himself with box-to-box runs or multiple tackles in a single run of play. He did not have to make many sprints, quick changes of direction or one-on-one challenges: all situations that have an increased risk of injury.
As a result, Kante logged 90 minutes of productive and safe Premier League football. He showed Frank Lampard and the sports medicine staff where he is at tactically, physically and in terms of match sharpness, and the game was a positive in each account.
The unfortunate thing about all this is that Didier Deschamps, acting out of what is looking like an excess of bile that should be familiar for anyone who, as they say, watched Chelsea last season, called up N’Golo Kante for the French national team.
Deschamps’ decision after Frank Lampard’s intervention during last month’s international break implies Deschamps will use Kante against Moldova and Albania. No offence to either country, but if Deschamps needs Kante to defeat them then the manager and Les Bleus have fallen quite some distance from their World Cup winning perch. If Deschamps doesn’t need Kante to defeat them but called him up anyway under the circumstances, please review the events of May 5, 2019.
And even if Kante spends the international break on the bench, it is still a needless risk and unnecessary obstacle in his recovery. France’s sports medicine staff is not to the level of Chelsea’s and they are not as familiar with Kante as the club’s are. Every training session runs the risk of a reinjury or aggravation, and the rehab / conditioning work will be sub par.
Chelsea are a better team and a different team with N’Golo Kante back in the lineup. Even if everything goes well with France he will still be gradually eased into the regular XI. Once a week will be sufficient for him to contribute to the Blues’ form heading into the festive period while ensuring he is available for the entirety of that span.
If everything goes well with France.