From Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – The notion of a defensive midfielder being a potential game-changer from the bench is usually far-fetched at best – but not when it comes to N’Golo Kante.
Even when the Frenchman was named among the Chelsea substitutes for the trip to Tottenham on Sunday upon his return from an ankle injury, nestled among a star-studded list of attacking names including Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi, there was an air of anticipation that he could be the difference.
And so it proved to be.
Chelsea were faced with a buoyant atmosphere at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with the home fans keen to make their voices heard in memory of club legend Jimmy Greaves, who passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning.
The Spurs players fed off that energy in the first 45 minutes, forcing Chelsea back early on with an aggressive high press led by the fit-again Son Heung-min. Sergio Reguilon wasted an excellent opportunity when he attempted to cross when in a great scoring position on his favoured left foot. Son then saw a poked effort smothered well by Kepa Arrizabalaga after he was slipped through by Harry Kane.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was particularly impressive for the hosts in midfield, covering ground, making interceptions, winning aerial duels and biting into the challenge to embody Tottenham’s do or die approach to the first period – and keeping Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic’s influence to a minimum.
With his side somewhat fortunate to be level at the break, Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel recognised that this was a rare occasion where the Blues were losing the midfield battle, introducing Kante at half-time for Mason Mount, who is continuing to struggle for form.
While this would suggest a shift from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2, Tuchel claimed he continued with the same shape but it was simply played with more intensity.
“Actually we did not change the system, maybe that was the point, but we played the system with more belief, more quality,” Tuchel said in his post-match press conference. “We relied only on skilful play in the first half. This had to change, and when you have N’Golo on the bench and you are able to change the game, he is unique and can change the momentum.”
That increase in intensity was inspired by Kante, who not only swung the momentum, but also added a game-winning contribution. The 30-year-old was straight into the match, busying himself in midfield and making the central area far more compact for the visitors.
The development of his touch, control and passing is particularly striking – he is not just there to make tackles and break up play with interceptions, but also play progressive passes, throw in a cheeky nutmeg and carry the ball forward at real pace.
The France international gave a demonstration of his new-found attacking prowess to double the lead, picking up a pocket of space on the edge of the Tottenham penalty area and firing a shot that deflected in off Eric Dier and the post.
With the goal scored fewer than ten minutes after Thiago Silva’s opener, it was a sucker punch to Spurs’ hopes of turning the match around. Chelsea dominated the remainder of the game – adding a third in injury time – with Kante at the heart of so much of their best play.
Son, Hojbjerg and Harry Kane’s influence waned, and there was one key reason for that. Had the Blues buried some of the chances Kante played a role in, it could easily have been six.
While Tuchel deserves huge credit for his tactical awareness and the tweak he made at the break, he was inevitably keen to direct praise to his superlative midfielder after the match. “If you have N’Golo you have something everyone is looking for,” he continued. “Work rate, intensity, ball wins. It’s hard to believe how good he is. He plays excellent in every possession game we do in training.
“N’Golo is N’Golo, it’s fantastic.”