Four days before the Europa League final, N’Golo Kanté twisted his knee in training. According to him, pretty badly.
With barely any time to recover, things were looking bleak.
“I was a little bit worried to not play the final because I twisted my knee quite badly, but the medical staff did a good job.”
As fuzzy bird’s eye videos showed, the day before the match Kanté was still training alone and only doing some jogging. He did not complete even that light session before walking off with the team doctor. Maurizio Sarri was concerned during his pre-match press conference, using words like “problem” and “trouble” and noting how N’Golo was “really very important”, which he said twice. He listed Kanté as 50-50 to play in the final, a slight improvement from the previous day’s 60-40 in favor of “no”, but still unconvincing.
N’Golo Kanté is our most vital player, and the last bit of truly great business the team have done. Chelsea can find ways to cope without Eden, but without being granted an exception to field 12 players, replacing N’Golo is impossible. Because of this, Maurizio Sarri was contemplating the risk, despite a month earlier admonishing himself for taking a similar one, saying “he is the only defensive midfielder that we have”. (Side note: please take a moment to appreciate that quote.)
And then, Kanté was named in the starting XI.
There’s no way of us knowing exactly how painful or how bad his injury was (and still may be), and there’s no way of knowing if he felt pressured to risk his body, or if he was the one doing the pressuring. It was a final, sure. And it was for a trophy, and we of course love trophies. But it ultimately wasn’t a match that was going to change much beyond adding a few more reasons to laugh at Arsenal. With the club’s recent run of extremely bad injury luck, the risk didn’t really seem to be worth it.
And then, he played 90 minutes.
“[The medical staff] did everything to get me ready for the final. I am happy to have played and helped the team to win.
“We are happy because it was the only title we could win this season. It means a lot because we can celebrate this title all together. It’s a beautiful one.”
–N’Golo Kanté; source: Chelsea FC
It’s possible that Chelsea and Sarri were playing mind games with the injury. This can happen before big matches; teams play coy and try to add wrinkles to the opposition’s preparations. Sure. But Kanté certainly did not look 100 per cent, or anywhere near it. His positioning was, as always, excellent, but he was missing his typical ability to be in two places at the same time. According to WhoScored, Kanté recorded one tackle and zero interceptions.
Others picked up some of the slack. Jorginho was credited with ten tackles; Kovačić with four. But that just underscored Kanté’s importance and world class talent, which extends beyond just the typical defensive responsibilities. He didn’t need 100 per cent of himself to give the team the balance it needed, to read the play, key the press, and help stop Arsenal’s build-up, or to move the ball, keep possession, be an outlet, and all the other necessary things a team needs in and around midfield.
Though we certainly shouldn’t make a habit of risking him — and we shouldn’t really play into the “he did it on one leg!” cliché that often follows when an athlete risks their body in a way that was likely unwise (see also: David Luiz in Munich) — it does add to his legend. One day I hope he’ll have some decent help in midfield, or at least a capable backup. For now, N’Golo Kanté is all we’ve got, and he’s proven yet again that he’s quite enough.