All signs point to N’Golo Kanté and Billy Gilmour starting for Chelsea in today’s FA Cup fifth round match against Barnsley, and if that happens, it will be the first start for either since Thomas Tuchel’s appointment as Frank Lampard’s replacement. All four of Tuchel’s matches so far featured Jorginho and Mateo Kovačić in central midfield from the start, with the former playing every single minute and the latter playing every minute bar the last 16 against Spurs when we had to “suffer” a bit.
Granted, Tuchel’s hands have been a bit tied as Kanté’s had been dealing with a hamstring injury that he picked up at the start of January while Gilmour had not been back for much longer either following offseason knee surgery.
The new head coach moved quickly to assuage any fears of either’s future not long after his arrival, making it clear just how highly he rates Kanté’s in a “double-six” and how impressed he was with young Gilmour in his first few days already, rejecting any notion of needing to send him on loan. In yesterday’s press conference, he elucidated a bit further along similar lines.
“I think N’Golo fits into any manager’s plans on the planet. I was desperate to have him in my teams [in the past]. He is a big Chelsea player and one of the best midfielders in the world. So I am so lucky to have him in my squad and that he is back again.”
“I am very, very impressed. We’ve known him for many years very well because we’ve come from a French club. We were very impressed from the television but to see him live, to see how he works, how humble he is, the quality he gives to the team, it’s a gift to be his coach. I am so happy.”
Kanté has featured for about a quarter of an hour off the bench in each of our last two games, once in a midfield-two and once prompting a tactical shift to a central trio. Tuchel prefers him in the former, in the “double-six”, even if Kanté’s also eminently useful in three (which is where he’s been used most often in the last 2.5 years with Sarri and Lampard, either as the base No.6 or the box-to-box No.8).
“For me, his best position is in a double six. He can play as a single six, of course, but a strength for him is to have a kind of freedom to use his range and volume. As a single six, as in a 4-1-4-1, he has to be more disciplined in his position. He can do this but I think we would be cutting his wings a little bit.
“So double six is best. He can play in a three-man midfield – as he did in Sheffield – but if we keep the same structure as in the last few games, it suits him very well. It’s clear what we want from him. We want short distances so we can use his strengths in counter-pressing and recoveries of the ball. He is an outstanding player we need in a strong squad and at a big club like Chelsea.”
-Thomas Tuchel; source: Football.London
Chelsea have had a relatively easy schedule under Tuchel so far, with Spurs the only team who were in the top half of the table, let alone above us. But after the FA Cup detour and Newcastle on Sunday, the difficulty ramps up significantly and Tuchel will have to think twice about trotting out the Jo-vačić midfield.
While that should bode well for Kanté’s involvement, it’s not likely to generate too many obvious opportunities for Gilmour. Tuchel may rate the youngster, but the head coach has made it clear that the 19-year-old is just fourth choice — which shouldn’t be a surprise, but such things always seem harsher when they’re spelled out so clearly.
“First of all, I like him as a person because for me he represents everything that a young guy from the Academy should represent when he arrives in the first team. He is happy to be here and living his dream. He has the perfect mix between being humble and patient but also trying in every training session to improve and learn and not show too much respect.
“Billy has a lot of qualities — he is very self-confident in our training games, a very strong passer, very smart in finding positions and he has all the physical abilities to play in the first team.
“We have a strong midfield and he is clearly one of four players for central midfield behind Jorginho, Kovačić and N’Golo Kanté. That makes it difficult for him to find his place but he is the number four right now in my head and to be the number four out of two positions is a pretty good start. We are happy to have him and we are absolutely ready to push him and support him on his way.”
-Thomas Tuchel; source: Chelsea FC
Sounds like a great chance for the youngster then today to show what he’s got in a match context. Who knows what the rest of the season, not to mention the future beyond holds!