A ‘talisman’ in football is essentially a player who produces bits and pieces of magic on the pitch which almost single handedly always lead his team to glory. However, on closer observation, it can be seen that this term is predominantly associated with strikers or offensive players.
But this by no means implies that players who play in other positions can’t be considered as talismen for their teams.
In fact, one of the saddest truths about football is that while offensive players bask in the glory of the number of goals they’ve scored and the chances they’ve created and while defenders and goalkeepers are credited for the number of clean sheets they’ve kept, midfielders and particularly defensive midfielders, almost never get the full share of credit they actually deserve.
But the moment such a player misses a few games for one reason or the other is when everyone begins to comprehend the real value that they bring to the game.
Not all heroes wear capes
This has never been truer than in the case of N’golo Kante and Chelsea this season. The Frenchman came into the ongoing season having created a bit of personal history by becoming one of the few players to have won back to back Premier League titles with two different clubs.
However, despite his indispensable individual contributions in leading both Leicester City and Chelsea to glory, Kante still remains as shy and humble as ever.
In fact, it’s fair to say that Kante does not play the game for either fame or recognition. While his footballing prowess does not hog the limelight since he’s neither a creator nor a goal scorer, it doesn’t take away from his dire need in a team.
Moreover, because of how easy Kante makes his job look his contributions to the team almost always went under the radar, until recently. Truth be told, the 26-year-old plays in perhaps the most difficult position on a football pitch as his role includes sniffing out the opposition’s’ attack and initiating the counter attack for his team each and every time.
Further, while this is a thankless and an endless task to most others, Kante manages to do all this and then some with admirable aplomb, thanks to his abnormal work rate which is also what makes him such an invaluable asset to whichever team he plays for.
So, as he always does, the Frenchman just went about doing for Chelsea at the beginning of this season, what he seems to do so effortlessly i.e. putting in a shift in midfield. However, the true value of Chelsea’s best summer signing was somehow lost amidst Chelsea’s slow start to their Premier League title defence.
Having said that, let’s make it very clear that Chelsea’s indifferent start to their domestic season had nothing to do with Kante. In fact, the Chelsea no.7 had a brilliant start to his individual campaign as he simply seemed to carry on from where he had left off last season, and even managed to score against his former club.
Given this scenario, it would take something drastic to actually appreciate Kante’s true worth and as luck would have it, this is exactly what happened when the Frenchman picked up a thigh injury which kept him on the sidelines for a few weeks.
Subsequently, but not surprisingly, Kante’s absence also coincided with a blip in Chelsea’s fortunes as The Blues suffered embarrassing defeats to Crystal Palace and AS Roma in the Premier League and the Champions League respectively.
A void like no other
During Kante’s absence though, what was most notable about Chelsea was the fact that The Blues missed the Frenchman not just because he is their midfield general, but also because his presence affords a sense of freedom to his teammates.
For instance, in Kante’s absence, Conte was forced to deploy Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoué Bakayoko in the heart of Chelsea’s midfield.
And though the duo managed to do the job fairly well as Chelsea secured consecutive wins against Watford and Bournemouth in the Premier League, the fact still remains that Fabregas and Bakayoko can never fill in the boots of Kante, neither individually, nor as a pair and here’s why: On one hand, while Fabregas is certainly one of the best midfielders in the world in a creative sense, the Spaniard is defensively not adept enough to do the kind of relentless work that the Frenchman does.
On the other hand, Bakayoko is still coming to terms with life in the Premier League and therefore can’t be expected to fill in the boots of his compatriot, just yet.
Given this scenario, Chelsea’s Champions League encounter against a disciplined and well oiled Roma side was always going to be the litmus test of this tactic.
And as things turned out, the move backfired severely against the Italian club as the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman bossed both Fabregas and Bakayoko in the middle of the pitch which was a major part of reason why Roma managed to crush Chelsea last Tuesday.
A true talisman
After the horror show that the Chelsea midfield had against Roma, Kante’s return couldn’t come soon enough for Antonio Conte’s men, especially since they faced Manchester United at Stamford Bridge last Sunday.
And luckily enough for Conte, his midfield general was declared fit just in time for the high profile fixture.
On the face of it, the defensive midfielder’s return allowed Conte to bring him straight back into his natural position in the starting lineup alongside Bakayoko.
But more importantly, from a tactical point of view, the return of the workhorse also meant that Fabregas no longer had to fill in as a makeshift defensive midfielder and was thereby relieved of his defensive responsibilities.
Moreover, while most other players usually take a good few games to get back up to speed with things upon their return from an injury, Kante certainly is one of a kind. He fit back into the scheme of things for Chelsea like he had never been away and the benefits of his return were plain to see.
For starters, Kante’s return meant that Fabregas could finally focus on the offensive aspect of his game as the Spaniard was given a license to roam in behind Alvaro Morata, alongside Eden Hazard.
But the biggest attribute that Kante brings to Chelsea is the freedom and security that his presence brings to the other outfield players on the whole.
And this was visible once again on Sunday against United. Kante’s presence gave Bakayoko the licence to venture further forward than he otherwise would have done and as a result of this the former AS Monaco man found himself in some wonderful scoring positions during the match.
In fact, had Bakayoko kept his composure in front of goal, the margin of Chelsea’s victory would have been emphatic.
Whichever way you look at it, there’s simply no denying the fact that Chelsea were galvanised by Kante’s return against United.
Although the highlights will always be written by the goal scorers and the show stoppers, a certain 5’6” French talisman showed us again just how far desire and tenacity can take you. And he did it all while going under the radar, once again.
But most importantly, Kante’s contributions to Chelsea’s performances this season is a reminder of the fact that a true talisman isn’t necessarily someone who always leads his team to glory, rather, a true talisman is someone who always brings out the best in the players around him, just like N’Golo Kante does for Chelsea.