A majority of players pass through football clubs, like changing cast members in a long-running West End production. Some are replaceable, and although their legacies may gain adoration, others can replicate their talents, especially at clubs with the significant funds to find them. N’Golo Kante is certainly in a different bracket.
Once he departs west London in May or beyond, replicating his skillset is a job even the shrewdest recruitment team in the sport would envy. Chapters will be written in future football books about his impact on the game and how his unique and transformative skill set led his clubs and country to extraordinary heights.
How, for a player who is small in stature, his impact on games was so dominant and overwhelming for the opposition to handle. However, those great things about Kante are increasingly being written in the past tense.
The 2015/16 season with Leicester, the 2016/17 title triumph with Chelsea , and the ridiculous run of form in the spring of 2021 led Chelsea to their second Champions League. With every game he misses, those moments get further away, and the brutal reality of where Kante sits now becomes clearer.
The midfielder has not played a minute of football since the 14th of August, nearly two months ago. The hamstring injury that forced him off against Spurs has led to a longer time out than initially expected. “We’re talking about weeks, which is not good news.” Then Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel said after the Spurs game.
“We’re disappointed and sad because was super fit.”
The weeks have turned into months. By the time Kante returns, he will be playing under his fifth Chelsea head coach in six years and given a recent setback admitted by Graham Potter preceding the trip to face AC Milan. It is unclear when that return will even be.
“We’re just waiting for [Kante’s] reaction from training,” Potter said. “It is certainly not ideal, so we will have to wait and see the extent of it and go from there.”
Kante has already missed 10 of Chelsea’s opening 12 games so far this term. Nine remain in a congested four-week period before everything stops for the World Cup in Qatar, a competition Didier Deschamps will be hoping Kante can feature in as France aim to defend their crown. Debates have been ongoing over Kante’s contract situation, with reports emerging last month of the difference in expectations between the club and the player.
Kante, now 31, naturally sees this as his last chance for a big contract. Chelsea expectedly are hesitant to offer a lengthy one, given his continuous fitness concerns.
Arguments for handing Kante a new contract are naturally reliant on how decisive his influence can be should he remain fit and perform to his best. In his last game against Spurs, Kante looked in peak condition and form. He was ferociously eating up the ground, snapping into challenges and helping to overwhelm Spurs’ midfield.
There is little point arguing against this because without Kante fit, it is extremely unlikely Chelsea win the Champions League in 2021, probably his most defining triumph at the club given his run of standout performances during the knockout stage. But the comeback to all of that is also hard to combat: his lack of availability.
Tuchel stunned onlookers back in May when he took time out of his press conference following a very forgettable draw with Leicester to heap praise on Kante.
“I think he is our key, key, key player, but key, key, key players need to be on the pitch, and if he plays only 40% of the games, it is maybe a miracle that we arrive in third place. He is our Mo Salah, our [Virgil] van Dijk, our [Kevin] De Bruyne.
“He is simply that player. He is our Neymar, our Kylian Mbappe, he is the guy who makes the difference, and if you only have him 40%, it is a huge problem.”
When Kante was at his best, that assessment is absolutely correct. He is one of the greatest in his position in world football. The flaw in that ‘key’ argument comes when you factor in how much time he now spends on the sidelines. How much of Chelsea’s seasons are spent hoping Kante returns to fitness? To be a key player, by definition, you need to be available and fit for the majority of the season.
Mason Mount probably fits that bill most appropriately based on his pretty insane durability since his breakthrough in 2019. We are now at a point where protecting Kante has come above just getting him back on the pitch. Which absolutely is the right way to go about tiihings when maybe coaches of the past have pushed to get him back involved. But is that a brilliant use of Chelsea’s time in such a vital area of the pitch? Relying on Kante’s fitness is a fragile strategy, just demonstrated by the evidence of missing 73 games for club and country since the start of the 2019/20 campaign.
Although few players can provide the transformative effect Kante can should Potter enjoy a run of availability, Chelsea cannot plan for the long-term with that hope. It indicates why Chelsea need to start investing in the future. Either by promoting the players they currently have into those vital midfield roles or by seriously looking at buying new ones in January or for next summer when Kante’s contract expires.
That decision has been overdue for some time, and it is a brutal one based on the incredible legacy Kante will undoubtedly leave behind him. Offering him a new deal is not the no-brainer it once seemed. Whatever way that situation resolves itself, Chelsea need to find their next key midfielder somewhere else.