Pat Nevin: Top of the class

Last night’s game confirmed what many think about one player and contradicted what some believe about an aspect of our play writes Pat Nevin in this week’s column…

 

There are plenty of jokes going around at the moment about the special abilities of N’Golo Kante.

Eden Hazard talking about there being N’Golo twins on the field against West Ham was a nice one-liner, Leicester playing with 12 men last season because N’Golo played both sides of Danny Drinkwater etc etc. Well he was at it again in east London where it seemed like he was omnipresent on the field. Were there three Kante’s playing? It seemed like it at times. One minute he was on the left wing, the next right full-back and all the while winning tackle after tackle he had no right to win.

Sitting beside Jason and Tommy on Chelsea TV, there was a moment when a West Ham player had the ball on the left-hand side and shaped up to try to dribble past N’Golo down the line. We all laughed in unison even before the tackle came. Why did he even think there was the vaguest possibility of a notion that he might pass N’Golo with the ball?  Needless to say our one-man midfield effortlessly relieved him of possession and moved on with minimal fuss.

WHEREVER THEY MAY BE: Conte changes tactics to ensure victory

We use the words world class far too liberally these days when TV hyperbole deems it necessary to build up the spectacle and hold the viewers’ attention. Being the best in the world or in the top two or three is a massive compliment and it often is only one part of a footballer’s game that puts him right up there, so do not say world class lightly. 

Frank Lampard was a world-class finisher from the midfield area. Eden Hazard is a world-class dribbler, Cesc a world-class passer of a football and N’Golo Kante almost certainly has no equal as a midfield tackler in the game today. In an era when tackling is a dying art and opponents are quick to throw themselves to the ground with the hint of the merest breath of wind against their bodies, getting the ball clean and coming away with it, without being penalised is particularly difficult. N’Golo Kante makes it look ridiculously easy.

You do not have to be a football aficionado to spot how impressive his role was in the opening goal against West Ham. It wasn’t just a tackle or an interception, it was reading his opponent’s mind before the player knew what he was going to do himself. The rest of the move was a thing of beauty too, but that moment was the catalyst. From then on in the game, the Hammers’ midfielders regularly took the safe option rather than taking any chances when the ball thief was in the vicinity and that became the platform for Chelsea to win the game.

To be honest, the rest was pretty damn good rather than spectacular but that was plenty to clear what was another tricky hurdle as West Ham have been improving of late. The most important stuff in the second half centred around our defence. Slavan Bilic is not the first coach to try to undermine our perceived weakness in the air from crosses, particularly from their right-hand side, our left. They might however be behind the curve as Antonio Conte appears to have made a few little changes that are now closing that particular door.

First of all, Marcos Alonso did not give Feghouli many opportunities to put quality balls in from that area, and the full-back Kouyate had plenty on his plate trying to deal with Eden Hazard, usually by regularly kicking him up in the air and then not getting booked as far as I could see. Even when the balls were delivered towards Andy Carroll, the organisation seemed to be the best it has been for a few weeks. Victor covered back superbly although Carroll probably felt less positive about him when he received a bad cut after a challenge with our wing-back, who had covered back perfectly.

Azpi won more headers than he lost against Carroll who is about eight inches taller than him. I should really calculate that in centimetres I suppose, so after careful calculation it is precisely…a lot. Gary Cahill was generally imperious and I checked the OPTA stats to find David Luiz didn’t do too badly either, winning 100 per cent of his aerial battles on the night. 

This is all important because Jose and his boys are coming to town next week and there is no doubt they will be using the same tactic as often as they can. As I write this, I can’t say for sure if Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be serving a three-match ban, but if he is and I suspect he will be, then that is a huge blow to the tactics that Jose would prefer to use. Thinking about Zlatan’s deliberate or otherwise elbow on Tyrone Mings, do you reckon Diego Costa would have got the same coverage, or would there have been calls for him to be treated like a Mexican found loitering in Donald Trump’s bedroom.

I digress, again, but not having Zlatan available will not stop our old manager getting the ball in the mixer at the back post. Expect Fellaini, Pogba and even the likes of Smalling at set-pieces to be attacking those areas at every opportunity. It is a perfectly reasonable ploy, but I do not think it is the huge weakness everyone seems to think it is, and most importantly Antonio knows all about it anyway. If Zlatan was available, then there is the option of bringing Kurt Zouma in, but that would of course be harsh on either Azpi or Victor who have done the square root of nothing wrong of late.

I suspect Antonio will not bother changing for anyone anyway, it is up to the others to adapt to Chelsea right now and that includes Jose Mourinho and Manchester United. Jose might know Chelsea and most of the players better than just about anyone, but most of teams appear to know what Chelsea are doing, they just can’t seem to find a way of stopping it. Even when the team plays just fairly well, it tends to still be enough.