Loftus-Cheek features as England leave it late
Ruben Loftus-Cheek made his first appearance at a major international tournament and helped England secure a crucial 2-1 win against Tunisia in their opening World Cup game.
There was a moment, 17 minutes in to our home victory over Liverpool earlier this month, when the Chelsea support inside Stamford Bridge erupted in applause and cheers, collectively rising to their feet to salute an outstanding piece of football.
But it was not a goal the Blues faithful were celebrating. Nor was it a penalty save. What had brought such universal recognition from everyone watching on was a tackle so perfectly executed it should go straight into every football manual.
As an attack of ours broke down on the edge of the Liverpool box, most in blue were positioned ahead of the ball. The visitors broke at customary speed through Sadio Mane. Mohamed Salah was to his right and Roberto Firmino his left. We were in trouble.
When N’Golo Kante started his pursuit of the Senegalese forward, one of the quickest players in the Premier League, he was a good 10 yards behind him. A few seconds and one superb tackle later, and the danger had been quelled. The crowd cheered their approval. The noise generated was only surpassed when Olivier Giroud headed our winning goal shortly after.
A few weeks on, does Kante recall that spine-tingling roar?
‘Yes, yes,’ he responds, one of those big grins of his spreading across his face.
‘I remember this moment. It’s something I appreciate. It is not something you are looking for; I was just doing my job trying to recover the ball and help the team out at that moment.
‘I was happy to get this tackle to help the team, and I can appreciate it even more when the supporters feel my efforts.
‘Normally during the game, I am more focused on what’s going on on the pitch, trying to win and give my best. But sometimes after one action happens on the pitch, you can hear the supporters behind you, especially at home. Also everywhere we play away we have a lot of supporters. This helps us on the pitch.’
It is often said Kante is a runner, a marathon man seemingly omnipresent across the turf. But there is much more to it than that.
He is very rarely the Chelsea player who covers the most ground in a game. Instead, he understands the physical capabilities of his body so well that he knows exactly how far he can push over the course of the 90 minutes, enabling him to produce moments of intensity at any point in a game. It explains why he tackles, intercepts and recovers with such frequency. It is a rare ability among footballers.
He marries this physical strategy with innate intelligence. The results are devastating. Kante’s canniness is a joy to behold, and explains why even though he plays in a traditionally unglamorous position, he is so venerated.
His intuition and inventiveness spreads beyond the pitch, too, as the official Chelsea website witnessed first-hand as the Frenchman knocked us out en route to glory in the Cobham pool tournament. Aesthetically, Kante is no Ronnie O’Sullivan. He holds the cue awkwardly, and rarely strikes the white ball with much finesse. But again and again, it ended up in the right position for the next shot, with a coloured ball slotted in to a pocket in the meantime. Kante laughs when we bring the subject up with him.
‘Pool is one thing; football another! I know I am not the best pool player, so I try to be clever by thinking about how I want to play!
‘On the pitch it is the same. Everyone has their job to do. We try to prepare for it and work on it in training. In games we all work for each other. I need to anticipate if one attack is going wrong, what is needed to be done to stop the counter-attack. It’s important to always think what could happen, offensively and defensively, and to always be aware on the pitch. That’s what I am trying to give.
‘It’s something as a midfielder I have worked on a lot. Every midfielder who plays in this position at Chelsea has the same role. I can’t say away from football if I am someone who prepares everything before, but maybe in pool, yes!’
It is not just on the baize that Kante feels right at home. He says he is loving life at Chelsea, and ever since arriving has ‘felt comfortable in the dressing room’. Our training ground is certainly a brighter place for his presence.
In his downtime Kante, who holds an accountancy qualification completed when he was a semi-professional, likes to relax at home with friends and family.
‘They come over often from Paris,’ he details. ‘When they visit they want to see the tourist sites in London. It’s a good city, a big city. There are lots of things to do.
‘For me London will always be different because Paris is home, I was born there, I’m from there, I can speak French there. But they are both great capitals where you can find everything you need.’
In Kante, we have found everything we have needed since his arrival in 2016. Long may he continue patrolling the Chelsea midfield.
By Rupert Cane