After seven months out following hamstring surgery, tomorrow’s home game against Everton is scheduled for Kante to make a much-anticipated comeback.
Any return is likely to come off the bench first, of course, but the mere sight of him in a Chelsea shirt will give everyone at the club a lift. A lot has changed since Kante last played, in a 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur in August.
Thomas Tuchel has been replaced by Graham Potter, his old midfield partner Jorginho has been sold to Arsenal and Fernandez has been signed for a UK record £106.8 million.
Fernandez has made an impressive start at Chelsea. Since joining in January, he has averaged the longest and most progressive passes per 90 minutes of any Premier League midfielder playing more than 300 minutes.
But in the Champions League first-leg defeat to Borussia Dortmund, the way Karim Adeyemi ran past him at half-time hinted at a potential weakness in his game.
A lack of recovery pace was further evidenced by an unflattering statistic at the end of February that showed him the most dribbled midfielder in Europe’s top five leagues. A switch to a 3-4-3 formation has protected Fernandez.
He is less vulnerable in the new system, has less cover and more defenders around him. That allows him to express himself further down the pitch, just as he did for his sublime pass to Kai Havertz that scored for Leicester last weekend.
The change in formation contributed to an improvement in results. Chelsea have won three consecutive games to ease the pressure on Potter, but in the longer term the club want a more fluid style of play and are using a back four.
That could manifest itself with two defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. Simply put, Kanté could partner Fernandez as a ‘double pivot’. In a 4-3-3, or three-man alternate midfield system, the Argentina star would act as the sole pivot, allowing Kante and Mateo Kovacic or Mason Mount to act as box-to-box number 8.
A fully fit Kante’s ability to cover ground is key to enabling Fernandez to take more risks and choose his moments to stray further ahead. At the end of the season, Tuchel stressed Kante’s importance to Chelsea.
“He is our Mo Salah, our [Virgil] van Dijk, our [Kevin] De Bruyne,” said the German. “He’s just that player. Our Neymar, our Kylian Mbappe.”
Kante’s return from injury is a big boost for Chelsea and it is believed his physical problems are now behind him. Care and time has been taken after his hamstring surgery to get his rehabilitation period right.
Kante returned to full training three weeks ago but was stopped from staging his return. A new contract is being finalized to show Chelsea’s belief in 31-year-old Kante. It is likely to be a two-year contract with an option for an additional year.
The deal has been treated as a priority and will allow him to return from tomorrow for a prominent role in the final showdown. His absence is regarded as a key factor behind Chelsea’s disappointing season. But, along with Fernandez, Potter hopes his return can transform Chelsea after the international break.