N’Golo Kante will always have all-time great status at Chelsea after his Champions League heroics in 2020-21.
The midfielder was named Man of the Match in both legs of the Blues’ semi-final win over Real Madrid, as well as in their final victory over Manchester City.
Those performances, full of energy, determination and world-class quality both on and off the ball, will be written into the Blues’ folklore.
And yet in Chelsea’s biggest game of the current campaign, their quarter-final first leg against Madrid, Kante was substituted at half-time.
For the first time in his Chelsea career, the 31-year-old was taken off before the start of the second period for a reason other than injury.
“It was a tactical change. It’s like always, it’s never on one or two players,” Tuchel said when asked by GOAL to explain the change post-match.
After the same thing happened to Tammy Abraham last season, he was sold to Roma. After Callum Hudson-Odoi was substituted just 20 minutes after coming on against Southampton in February 2021, he faced a long road to re-establish himself in west London.
If this is the beginning of the end for Kante at Chelsea, though, then it is a sad twist in the story of one of world football’s most beloved players.
Against Madrid, Kante had the lowest passing accuracy of all Chelsea’s central midfielders. He did not complete a single dribble, win a single tackle, make a single interception or make a single clearance.
In truth, it was a display in keeping with Kante’s struggles in recent months, with the France international having not looked himself since returning from knee and groin injuries in the midst of Chelsea’s difficult run through the winter.
Even though injury problems are not new to Kante, given his issues ever since the 2019 Europa League final, he could still be counted on to turn up for the big games, often earning Man-of-the-Match awards. Without those kinds of displays, the Blues would not be current European and world champions.
Now, though, those injuries coupled with his advancing years seem to have taken their toll on a midfielder who is relied upon for his unique blend of energy and technical quality to dominate opponents.
His consistency in recent seasons has been unmatched by any of his peers in any position at Chelsea, while many have described him as the world’s best midfielder.
Such was his level, Tuchel took his chance and presumed that Kante would return to form against Los Blancos.
That gamble did not pay off, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos pulling into wide areas, dragging Kante with them to leave huge spaces for Madrid to build attacks through the middle of the pitch.
That Kante’s struggles on Wednesday came after a similarly poor showing against Brentford four days earlier suggests, however, that it was not just Carlo Ancelotti’s tactics that neutralised the ex-Leicester City man.
Tuchel himself conceded that he made tactical errors on the night, most notably by playing Andreas Christensen on the right of a back three behind the marauding Reece James, which allowed Vinicius Junior to use his pace to run riot during the first half.
But it was not just Tuchel’s defensive choices that were strange.
Mateo Kovacic has been Chelsea’s most in-form midfielder this season, and his non-selection was confusing, particularly after he was rested for the Brentford defeat.
Tuchel had lavished praise on the Croatia international during his pre-match press conference, claiming the 27-year-old looks “like a wonderkid” in training while insisting Kovacic is closing in on becoming a world-class midfielder.
Chelsea thought they already had one of those in Kante, but physical fatigue at the end of another demanding season, along with the mental strains that come with the uncertainty over the club’s ownership seem to have taken their toll on both him and a number of his team-mates.
Though it would be a tough call to leave Kante out for the second leg as Chelsea aim to overturn their two-goal deficit at Santiago Bernabeu, Tuchel could do himself a favour in the long run if he were to give Kante a break in these final weeks of the season.
He no longer looks like the force of nature he has been since he arrived into English football almost seven years ago, and compromises will likely need to be made for him to reach those levels once more.
Kante helped carry Chelsea over the line in last season’s Champions League. The time might be coming, though, for others to start taking their share of the load.
Note: This article is written by Nizaar Kinsella and has been published at Goal