It’s difficult to argue with the assertion that N’Golo Kanté was the finest piece of Premier League transfer business last season.
The dynamic Frenchman, signed from Leicester City for £32million, proved to be an essential piece in the Chelsea puzzle as his remarkable performances helped lift the Blues to Premier League glory in his first season at Stamford Bridge.
For Kanté, it was a mere emulation of the sparkling standard he had set at the King Power Stadium the season before when, alongside Danny Drinkwater (who has since joined him at Chelsea), the indefatigable ball-winner helped Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes to their fairytale league triumph.
However, Kanté surely would have been one of many figures behind-the-scenes at Stamford Bridge to question the controversial sale of Nemanja Matić – his midfield partner – to rivals Manchester United.
Conte’s Dream Midfield Pairing
As it were, Matic left and was replaced by another dominant midfield presence: Tiémoué Bakayoko. The 23-year-old, who caught the eye as part of an excellent Monaco team last season, was drafted in as Kanté’s new midfield partner.
Bakayoko was not fit enough to feature for Chelsea in their opening day defeat to Burnley at Stamford Bridge, but made an impressive start to Premier League life in the 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.
After that win, Bakayoko was singled out for praise by Antonio Conte, who warned that he would only improve as he returned to peak physical condition.
The Italian coach also said that his goal was to make Bakayoko the complete midfielder, saying that he would work on the midfielder’s ability with the ball, just as he did with Kanté after he arrived from Leicester.
“He can improve a lot with the ball. We are working on this aspect. We did the same with N’Golo when he arrived here.
It seems that didn’t take too long. Having been dropped to the bench for the win over Everton, Bakayoko has put together a string of impressive performances alongside Kanté in recent weeks, and it may be Chelsea’s dream pairing in the middle that can stop Pep Guardiola’s attack-happy Manchester City, who travel to Stamford Bridge on Saturday for the weekend’s blockbuster match.
The Dynamic Duo
Chelsea look increasingly dangerous and confident as the weeks progress, and the players seem to be comfortable operating in Conte’s 3-4-2-1. Bakayoko and Kanté are the ideal midfield duo in front of the back-three, with wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses afforded the licence to surge forward to the more advanced attacking midfielders, which has been at different times Eden Hazard, Cesc Fàbregas, Willian and Pedro.
Against Arsenal, Conte opted to start Fàbregas ahead of Bakayoko alongside Kanté. However, with the Spain international failing to influence the game in the final third, the Chelsea manager took off the ineffective Pedro, brought on Bakayoko and moved Fàbregas forward.
Moments later, Bakayoko powered through Arsenal’s midfield before finding Alonso, getting Chelsea high up the pitch in a matter of seconds. It was a snapshot, but a telling one, as it illustrated Bakayoko’s ability to carry the ball with pace and power. When Kanté sits deep to cover, Bakayoko often takes this opportunity. In just five appearances in the league this season, Bakayoko has already managed 11 successful take-ons.
Kanté possesses a similar boldness in possession. It may be more sporadic, but the 26-year-old can also beat men. He is generally safer in possession, but when he sees an opportunity to break through, it can be just as effective.
Chelsea are likely to be without the ball against City than against any other team in the league (City have averaged a whopping 67 per cent possession in their first six league games this season), so it’s important that they can rely on Kanté and Bakayoko’s intelligence and decision-making when they have the ball.
Against Stoke City, Bakayoko and Kanté were critical in turning defence into attack. An impressive example of this is seen in the tweet below, which shows Bakayoko winning the ball on the edge of his own box, drawing pressure from the Potters as he surged forward before laying it off to Kanté, who squared to César Azpilicueta. The defender then found Álvaro Morata’s run which led to the opening goal.
Stopping City’s Devastating Attacking Force
Quite simply, there is no better team at pouring forward in numbers and slicing through defences than Guardiola’s City. They have had more touches (5,155), completed more passes (4,023) and, crucially, scored more goals (21) than any other team.
One of the main responsibilities for Kanté and Bakayoko, therefore, will be to crush City’s attacks. Fortunately, they are two of the best men for the job. One of the reasons people have exercised caution when assessing City’s recent free-scoring form has been their opposition and circumstantial factors.
Sadio Mané’s red card led to Liverpool’s capitulation at the hands of City, Feyenoord’s high defensive line was decimated, while Watford and Crystal Palace were simply powerless in stopping the flood of attackers coming their way.
In the emphatic 4-0 win at Stoke, Bakayoko showed what an effective presence he can be in the middle. During the game, he won five out of six tackles that he attempted, completed two out of three take-ons and made three interceptions. Kanté, meanwhile, made two interceptions, won eight duels and five tackles. It’s precisely this level of ball-winning, aggression, and organisation that will be key to stopping City’s midfield from finding pockets of space and looking for passes in behind the Chelsea defence.
One of City’s many attacking weapons is their ability to counter-attack. Although City enjoy the majority of possession in games, they are as deadly when absorbing pressure and springing an attack with devastating speed.
Against Atlético, though, Bakayoko and Kanté proved how they can be swift and decisive in stopping counters from developing. Bakayoko won all five of his attempted tackles, while Kanté won four out five, a near-faultless display of defensive work against high-quality opposition that certainly will not go unnoticed by Conte.
At the other end of the pitch, both players once again had a say in the final outcome of the game. It was a Kanté-Bakayoko combination which found Alonso on the right, with the wing-back finding Michy Batshuayi for the last-gasp winner. For the French pair in midfield, it merely capped a hugely satisfying night’s work.
Can They Really Stop This City Attack?
It’s safe to conclude that, if any midfield duo were to stop this current crop of Manchester City stars, it’s going to be Bakayoko and Kanté, based on recent form.
Of course, City will be their toughest assignment by some distance so far this season. Not only will they have to keep Kevin De Bruyne quiet, they will have to stop the craft of David Silva and the speed of Leroy Sané, but it looks like they won’t have to stop the sheer poaching threat of Sergio Agüero, with the Argentine involved in a car crash in Amsterdam on Thursday night which has reportedly left him with broken ribs.
It’s going to be a tough ask, but Bakayoko, Kanté and indeed their teammates will approach this game in buoyant mood, following their dramatic win over Atlético, and can draw further confidence from the fact that they beat Guardiola’s City both home and away last season. Guardiola, in fact, has never beaten Chelsea as a manager in 90 minutes in seven attempts (Bayern Munich beat them on penalties in the 2013 Super Cup final).
Although City look like an unstoppable force at the moment, they are set to come up against the immovable object in Chelsea’s midfield. To return to what Conte said, it’s clear that his instructions are getting through to Bakayoko. What we have seen in recent weeks is a disciplined, aggressive force in midfield. He already looks as though he has improved since his first appearance.
Of course, we can only praise Bakayoko and Kanté so much at this point. The most robust examination of their credentials is to come on Saturday.