N’Golo Kante has had to get used to physical contact from Thomas Tuchel. “He needs to accept that I will cuddle him, I do this a lot,” the Chelsea boss revealed before labelling the French midfielder “a top guy” ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid.
It’s not exactly a surprise that Tuchel holds a high opinion of the French midfielder given how integral he has been to the Blues’ dramatic turnaround over the last few months. Several members of Chelsea’s squad have been re-energised by the German’s arrival, but none more so than Kante.
Neither Frank Lampard nor Maurizio Sarri truly knew how to use Kante. Sarri in particular saw the Frenchman as something other than a midfield anchor, occasionally deploying him higher up the pitch. Lampard wasn’t quite so heavy-handed with Kante, but the lack of structure in the centre of the pitch didn’t suit the former PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
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Structure is certainly something Tuchel has given Chelsea since his appointment in January. Fluid and frequently shapeless under Lampard, the Blues are now a well-drilled, well-organised outfit. The coaching instilled in them by their new German manager is evident in the performances produced in recent times.
Kante has set the tone for what Tuchel expects from his players. The intensity is back in his game, with Chelsea able to get away with playing just two central midfielders due to the ground covered by the 30-year-old. Without Kante and his irrepressible capacity for doing the work of two players Tuchel’s Chelsea system might not work.
Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea-Manager
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“I have dreamed about this player, fighting for this player at any club I was coaching at and now he is my player,” Tuchel explained before Wednesday’s clash with Real Madrid. “He has won many trophies except for the Champions League. I am sure he will be doing everything to get this trophy. For me, he is an example, an unbelievable input for any team in the world. He is key. He will be key tomorrow.”
Stopping the Real Madrid midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric from dominating the centre of the pitch won’t be easy, but Kante is a specialist for this sort of task. When he is at his best, which he has been for the last few weeks, there is nobody in European football who can do what Kante does.
Champions League glory this season would, as Tuchel suggests, underline Kante’s status as a Chelsea great. Kante is the Blues’ tactical and spiritual bedrock, setting an example for others to follow with his drive and determination to always be on the move. He is a workaholic who makes others around him look lazy. Jorginho must revere and resent him in equal measure.
Kanté y Casemiro pelean un balón en el Real Madrid-Chelsea
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Tuchel recognises the balance that must be struck between chaos and control. Kante, more than anyone else, embodies what the German coach wants from his Chelsea side, demonstrating the energy to press opponents and force them into mistakes while acknowledging the need to stay disciplined and in shape. This is the sweet spot.
Chelsea under Tuchel are still something of a work-in-progress, but the opportunity in front of them is a golden one. Real Madrid are not the force they were a few years ago even if they still boast individuals capable of deciding a game. Chelsea also have an individual who could decide Wednesday’s match, but in a different way. If Kante helps his side past Real Madrid, there’s a good chance Tuchel will owe him another hug.
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