The Blues midfielder had the toughest year of his Premier League career last season, but he is back dominating English football once again
Chelsea manager Frank Lampard is reaping the rewards of keeping faith with N’Golo Kante, who proved that he is back to his best after Saturday’s 2-0 win at Newcastle United.
It was the Blues’ fifth victory in a row in all competitions and means they are now unbeaten in nine outings. Kante’s new holding role has been integral to Chelsea’s fine form.
The 29-year-old has overcome a succession of injury problems that saw him miss almost 50 per cent of last season’s matches.
So, this run of uninterrupted games, coupled with a change of position, has enabled Kante to reproduce the kind of influential displays last seen under former manager Antonio Conte, who parted company with Chelsea in 2018.
“We have had an injury-free period to get him to a place we are really happy with,” Lampard said of Kante’s fitness.
“We keep a check on his training and how much distance he travels because every time we allow him off the leash in training, he does a ridiculous amount of work because of the way he plays.
“So, we are very aware of that and are very careful with him. As a result, we are in a good place with him, so hopefully that continues.”
Of course, former Blues boss Conte is repeatedly linked with a reunion with Kante at current club Inter. However, any attempt to make it happen will likely be blocked at every turn by Chelsea.
Even as the transfer rumours persist, Lampard continues to ignore them and he gave his quiet leader the captain’s armband at St James’ Park to underline his trust in his only truly world-class player.
“I have so much faith in him and the top midfield player that he is,” he added. “It’s not just about breaking up play and winning the ball back, even though we know that is a huge quality of his.
“It’s also about his passing and his support play in midfield. Moving into that deeper role has been a very comfortable transition for him, so we’re just really, really happy with him.”
The presence of Kante allows others to go and play their own games, as we saw at St James’ Park.
An utterly dominant Chelsea opened the scoring just 10 minutes in courtesy of an own goal from Federico Fernandez, before Tammy Abraham finally killed the game off as a contest midway through the second half, after being teed up by Timo Werner.
The German’s blistering break was undoubtedly the highlight of an otherwise dull game but Kante produced a moment of equal importance.
It was the Frenchman’s outstretched leg that denied Allan Saint-Maximin what looked like a certain goal in the first half, as Kante produced a sensational block to deny the winger, after tracking his run from deep.
With all 14 players used having represented their respective countries during the international break, it was perhaps no surprise that the game was a little flat, with several participants clearly suffering from fatigue.
Kante’s energy, then, stood out a mile. He snuffed out one potential Newcastle counterattack after another, thus killing any hope Steve Bruce’s men had of turning the game around.
The 11.37 kilometres Kante covered on Saturday afternoon showed that he really has recovered from what was a physically torturous 2019-20 campaign.
Indeed, as well as covering every blade of grass, he also made four tackles, two clearances, three interceptions and, in total, he regained possession on five occasions.
It is easy to take Kante for granted in a team that boasts £220 million ($275m) worth of new signings, especially as he takes an increasingly reserved, understated role.
However, the World Cup winner has added the crucial element of balance to the 4-3-3 formation that Lampard has stumbled on in his quest to add defensive solidity to attacking threat.
Kante sits deep in midfield, in between two number eights who can get forward and support a star-studded front three.
With the full-backs told to overlap at every opportunity, Kante is regularly Chelsea’s deepest-lying player aside from the centre-backs, so he has been key to a run of seven clean sheets from Chelsea’s last nine games.
After Saturday’s win in Newcastle, Chelsea have now earned nine more points than their corresponding fixtures from last season.
At the time of writing, they have also scored more goals (22) than anyone else in the Premier League, so it’s easy to understand why they are now being tipped for a title challenge.
Certainly, anything is possible with Kante fully fit – and back at his brilliant best.