N’Golo Kante’s body is now either broken or at breaking point, but what are his spells between injury worth to Chelsea? He’s still their best ‘big game’ player.
Not long ago, Chelsea had a self-imposed rule which meant they would not offer a contract of more than a year to a player over the age of 30. The reasoning was two-fold: allow a path for players to be promoted from the youth team; ensure all their assets have a sell-on value.
Thirty was an arbitrary number selected for no reason other than Chelsea wanting a hard and fast point at which to make a distinction between members of their squad. Why 30? Despite medical advancements and numerous examples to the contrary, football is still obsessed with that age as the barrier between peak years and those of decline.
Like the ‘pregnant by 30’ trope, the reasoning is illogical. You will be slightly less likely to get pregnant at 31, but there are myriad, and far more cogent, factors involved. Genetics, mental and physical fitness, luck: they are all more significant than how old you are…in pregnancy and football.
Chelsea have thankfully woken up to the groundlessness of their own mandate, breaking it first for David Luiz (32) in 2019, and subsequently for Cesar Azpilcueta (33) and Kalidou Koulibaly (31), who will be 35 and 36 respectively at the end of their current contracts.
We could be in the age of the geriatric footballer. 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski cost Barcelona £40m and is under contract at the Nou Camp until he’s 38. They weren’t thinking of his age, instead looking at an injury record which has seen him miss under 20 games of football in the last seven years.
Injury, not age, is the problem for Kante and Chelsea. The 31-year-old says he wants to finish his career at Stamford Bridge and is therefore holding out for a three-year contract with the option of a further year, rather than the two-plus-one deal Chelsea have put on the table. Given he is currently enduring his 17th separate stint on the sidelines through injury or illness in just over three years, the club’s caution is understandable, as is Kante’s desire for security.
It’s got to a point now where the joy of seeing Kante at his best – as he was against Tottenham this season, for example – is dampened by the inevitability of his absence in the not-too-distant future. His body is now always either broken or at breaking point.
Were he not N’Golo Kante, there is little chance Chelsea would have offered two years, let alone the three they’re considering. When fit and playing, he is still comfortably the club’s best player. Think of a brilliant Chelsea performance under Thomas Tuchel and nine times out of ten, Kante was the key.
The smart thing to do would have been to sign an understudy to Kante, who could have played in his stead when injured this season and ease the pain of his possible departure. They haven’t done that. Denis Zakaria may be a good player, but Juventus would not have allowed a player with anything close to Kante-like quality to leave on loan. There are no other members of the Chelsea squad that come close to emulating Kante’s abilities.
Very few anywhere are like Kante of course. Moises Caicedo is causing quite the stir and Graham Potter’s arrival at Chelsea may give them the advantage in attempting to sign the Brighton midfielder over their Premier League rivals. But the earliest they could sign him would be in January, when they will likely need to have made up their mind over Kante, who will then be able to talk to potential suitors with his contract up in the summer.
Chelsea may face the reality of Caicedo and Kante bolstering the ranks of their rivals in the Premier League, while they take what would likely be a very expensive punt on someone with little chance of filling a chasm in their midfield.
Either way it’s a huge gamble for Chelsea. Bend to Kante’s will and they could be spending £45m over three years for perpetual absence. Or allow him to leave, struggle to replace him, watch him thrive elsewhere and retrospectively come to terms with the fact that ‘he was why we were so good in those big games’.
And those big games are what Chelsea should be basing their decision on. The reason he remains the club’s best player is no longer about consistency, made impossible through his injuries, but because of his performances when it really matters.
Whether it’s worth keeping him for those big games depends on how well they do without him. They won’t be playing Real Madrid in the Bernabeu again if they don’t at least make it through the Champions League group stage. Premier League away days at Manchester United and Arsenal in April aren’t going to matter much if they haven’t won games without Kante in the meantime.
It would also require his spells between injury to coincide with those important fixtures, and for Graham Potter not to get giddy and play him whenever available.
But like with a TV show bringing back a former star to boost falling ratings or a fast food chain adding festive favourites to their menus to increase revenue, it’s nice to have a fool-proof winner in reserve. So the (only) question Chelsea should be asking is: Is it worth paying Kante £15m a year to be the best player on the pitch for ten, or even five, of the biggest games each season? It probably is, you know.