Chelsea's N'Golo Kante impresses on Premier League debut versus West Ham
If Leicester City were destined to see an exodus of their best players following their shock Premier League title win last season, N’Golo Kanté would probably have been third or fourth on the list. The French international cut the figure of an unsung hero throughout the season, but he was always recognised for his tireless running, breaking up of play and superb work rate.
Interesting then, that Leicester have managed to hang onto their attacking stars Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, and it is the subtle, hard-worker of the team that got his big move to Antonio Conte’s Chelsea during the summer in a deal worth £32million. Conte, an astute tactician, is known for setting up teams to be a well drilled unit, tough to break down, that always look dangerous breaking forward and can nick a goal to see out games, such was the way of things at his all-conquering Juventus team in Serie A, and the Italian National Team under his tenure. To play to such a system, a team requires players who will work hard for the cause, get back as quickly as they can get up the pitch and that have no hesitation in doing the dirty work when necessary.
Kanté, as we have seen during his season with Leicester ticks all the boxes, Ranieri was actually said to have wept when hearing of the 25-year-old’s departure, and rightfully Chelsea fans have been gathering excitement over what he can contribute to the West London club. The night finally came for Kanté to strut his stuff in the other shade of blue, and it was the Monday night showpiece of the opening weekend of the Premier League, with East End club West Ham United the opponents.
And the man whose performances for Leicester earned him an international debut earlier this year, and a regular starting spot at Euro 2016, was at the heart of the action and as energetic as ever on his first showing for Chelsea, which yielded a 2-1 victory after a late Diego Costa winner, and Blues supporters can be optimistic that his presence will help restore a winning but also hard-working mentality to a Chelsea side that lacked inspiration and effort for long periods last season.
Kanté’s presence in midfield seemed to inject a fresh energy and effort to what was an ageing Chelsea side, and he was quick to get stuck in at his new club, making four key tackles on his debut, one key interception and one clearance from inside his own penalty area. After just 41 seconds he was greeted by rapturous applause from the Stamford Bridge crowd, arriving from nowhere to pick West Ham forward Andy Carroll’s pocket.
Minutes later he reminded the tall forward of his presence, though his timing could have been much better, his crunching tackle on Carroll earning him a yellow card with all but 87 minutes of the match left to play. Kanté however seemed unfazed, and maintained his professionalism to only gave away one other foul throughout the night, and was only dribbled past on one occasion, by France team-mate Dimitri Payet who he clumsily felled straight after but managed to avoid a second booking.
His presence screening his back four however was paramount in shutting the Hammers out as the two clubs battled and scrapped for possession in midfield, and it was simply bad luck that the one shot on target he helped restrict West Ham to, led to a goal, James Collins lashing home an equaliser from a corner in the 77th minute which looked to have rescued a point for the Irons after an Eden Hazard penalty just after the interval had put Chelsea in the driving seat.
Costa’s late winner provided the moment of relief and euphoria Chelsea fans craved after their poor start to the season under José Mourinho last term, but on Kanté’s performance, Chelsea may have finally solved the conundrum of finding the perfect defensive midfield player in the same vein as long departed stars Claude Makelele and Michael Essien.
Former France international Makelele was the reason the defensive midfield position was dubbed the “Makelele role”, simply because he was so excellent in that position and made it so perfectly his own, for club and for country. Kanté mirrors the former Premier League winner in various ways, his size, his nationality, his style of play and his tenacity, and already having a Premier League medal to his name with Leicester, he may have the potential to push on and be just as good as his compatriot, if not eclipse him. Whenever Kanté received the ball 30 yards from goal, cascades of “shoot” would descend from the stands, very much reminiscent of the former Chelsea star, though Kanté on his first showing didn’t quite have the same confidence to try something so speculative just yet.
The major fault in the centre of the park at Stamford Bridge was brutally exposed for all to see last season as the performances of Nemanja Matic fell into sharp decline, with José Mourinho and Roman Abramovich having failed to sure-up and strengthen Chelsea’s squad. Kanté’s presence here made Serbian international Matic look a re-invigorated player, compared to the forlorn figure he cut in the midst of last season’s crisis.
Although some of Kanté’s more audacious pass attempts didn’t quite find their desired targets, he maintained his composure throughout the contest, and although it is early days, Chelsea fans can be sure that they’ve purchased a real gem from the defending champions. They need not think much of the early yellow card since Kanté managed to keep his cool so effectively for the remainder of the contest, even in the feisty atmosphere of a London Derby.
At £32million, he may well be one of the steals of the summer during a transfer window which has seen Paul Pogba’s transfer steal the news headlines. In a different manner, based on this first outing, Kanté may just end up being equally as important for his team, as Chelsea look to become title challengers once again.
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