Chelsea: How N’Golo Kante return can unlock Enzo Fernandez potential and transform season
N’Golo Kante could help unlock Enzo Fernandez’s full potential on his Chelsea return.
After seven months out following hamstring surgery, tomorrow’s game at home to Everton has been pencilled in for Kante to make a long-awaited comeback.
Any return, of course, is likely to be first be first be from the bench, but just the sight of him in a Chelsea shirt will give everyone at the club a lift. A lot has changed since Kante last played, in a 1-1 draw against Tottenham in August.
Thomas Tuchel has been replaced by Graham Potter, his old midfield partner Jorginho has been sold to Arsenal and Fernandez has signed for a British record £106.8million.
Fernandez has made an impressive start at Chelsea. Since joining in January, he has averaged the most long and progressive passes per 90 minutes of all midfielders in the Premier League to play more than 300 minutes.
But in the Champions League first-leg defeat by Borussia Dortmund, the way Karim Adeyemi ran past him on the break highlighted a potential weakness in his game.
A lack of recovery pace was further displayed by an unflattering statistic at the end of February that showed he was the most dribbled-past midfielder in Europe’s top five leagues. A switch to a 3-4-3 formation has protected Fernandez.
He is less exposed in the new system, has less ground to cover and more defenders around him. That allows him to express himself further up the pitch, just as he did for his sublime lofted pass for Kai Havertz to score at Leicester last weekend.
The change in formation has helped spark an upturn in results. Chelsea have won three successive gamesto ease the pressure on Potter, but longer term the club want a more fluid playing style and use a back four.
That could manifest itself with two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. Put simply, Kante could partner Fernandez as a ‘double pivot’. In a 4-3-3, or any alternative three-man midfield system, the Argentina star would act as a sole pivot, allowing Kante and Mateo Kovacic or Mason Mount to act as box-to-box No8s.
The ability of a fully-fit Kante to cover ground is key to allowing Fernandez to take more risks and pick his moments to roam further forward. At the end of season, Tuchel emphasised the importance of Kante to Chelsea.
“He is our Mo Salah, our [Virgil] van Dijk, our [Kevin] De Bruyne,” said the German. “He is simply that player. Our Neymar, our Kylian Mbappe.”
Kante’s return from injury is a major boost for Chelsea and there is a belief that his physical problems are now behind him. Care and time has been taken after his hamstring surgery to get his rehabilitation period right.
Kante returned to full training three weeks ago but has been held back to stage-manage his return. A new contract is being finalised to show the belief Chelsea have in Kante, 31. It will likely be a two-year contract with an option for an extra year.
The deal has been treated as a priority and will allow him to return for a prominent role in the last run-in, starting tomorrow. His absence is considered a key factor behind Chelsea’s disappointing season. But, alongside Fernandez, Potter will hope his return can transform Chelsea after the international break.