N’Golo Kante, the midfield miracle worker who changed football

On his journey from the East Midlands to the Middle East, Kante’s unique work rate always left a sense that his teams had 12 men

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Wednesday 21 June 2023 16:40 BST
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<p>N’Golo Kante has left an indelible mark on football</p>

N’Golo Kante has left an indelible mark on football

First the romance, then the new reality. N’Golo Kante’s eight years in England were bookended by two phenomena, two dramatic shifts in the footballing world. In his debut season, came Leicester’s improbable Premier League win, powered by Kante, destined to be a one-off. As he goes, it is to Saudi Arabia, to Al Ittihad, to a project that has greater funds and may have more longevity. Kante, the footballer who famously drove a Mini, will get a supersized salary, reportedly £86m. Selfless running has proved to be a profitable business.

That it came in the same summer Leicester were relegated is a coincidence. Yet an era has ended: the three catalysts for English football’s greatest fairytale may not play in the Premier League again, with Jamie Vardy going down with the Foxes and Riyad Mahrez perhaps destined to join Kante in Saudi Arabia. A new force in the global game now is in the Middle East, not the East Midlands.

Kante goes as Leicester and Chelsea’s likeable legend, the unassuming and perhaps inimitable – though maybe Moises Caicedo will be charged with emulating him at Stamford Bridge – architect of unexpected triumphs. If xG has been a factor in football in recent years, so has ‘NG’; the latter was a way of confounding predictions.

It says something that winning the World Cup may not rank in Kante’s top three achievements; not given the context, anyway, because France were at least among the favourites in 2018. Their prowess, however, relied upon a recurring theme in Kante’s career: his ability to do the work of two men, which in turn released Paul Pogba to adopt a more attacking brief.

Kante became a hugely popular figure at Chelsea

But the Kante hat-trick consisted of his back-to-back Premier Leagues, with Leicester and Chelsea, who had finished 14th and 10th respectively the previous seasons, and then the 2021 Champions League. Arguably, he was the outstanding player in each competition. In 2015-16, the individual honours went to Vardy and Mahrez, before Kante was named both PFA Player of the Year and Footballer of the Year the following season. Aided by Italy’s triumph at Euro 2020, Jorginho won Uefa’s Player of the Year for 2020-21; it is no slight on the regista to say he was not even the best player in Chelsea’s midfield. Kante, man of the match in the final and both legs of the semi-final, was the small man who doubled up as a big-game player, and not merely because a disproportionate share of his few goals came against Chelsea’s peers.

Chelsea won the Champions League by conceding two goals in seven knockout games. Thomas Tuchel branded Kante “our Salah, our Van Dijk, our De Bruyne”. He was right: Chelsea’s X-factor footballer was a runner who was playing in France’s third tier when he turned 22. Kante’s defining attributes seemed prosaic: running – he could cover 13km in a game – tackling and intercepting, which he did more than virtually anyone else. But he felt flawless: the king of tackles was never sent off for either Chelsea or Leicester. And his brilliance was illustrated by his uniqueness: as others sought their own Kante, players who had similar statistics for regaining possession, such as Idrissa Gueye and Wilfred Ndidi, were acquired, but no one else had the full package.

Instructive as Tuchel’s tribute was, it was not the most pertinent praise of Kante. That came from the man who brought him to England, Steve Walsh, who took to whispering “Kante” to a sceptical Claudio Ranieri when their paths crossed in corridors and in ultimately successful attempts to persuade the manager to sign him. A year later, with Leicester champions, Walsh reflected that City played three in the heart of midfield in their seemingly anachronistic 4-4-2 formation: “[Danny] Drinkwater in the middle with Kante either side”.

Kante was Leicester's most crucial player in their title-winning campaign

And Kante, with his extraordinary energy, held back trends in tactics. There was a sense that teams with him had 12 men. A central-midfield trio tends to be a prerequisite at elite level these days: unless, that is, one of a duo is Kante, covering the ground of two men, compensating for the times he was actually outnumbered. The last two teams to win the Premier League with a central-midfield duo are Leicester and Chelsea; the first as a low-possession team, the second sometimes with the immobile Cesc Fabregas alongside the all-action Kante. In the last decade, only one team has won the Champions League with just two out-and-out central midfielders: Chelsea in 2021. Factor in France in 2018 and Kante made tactics and teams work.

Al-Ittihad will have to confront the question if such feats are consigned to the past, if a man whose physicality – along with his reading of the game – made him so good is now in decline. He only made nine appearances for Chelsea last season. Graham Potter is entitled to feel himself luckless in at least one respect: Kante was only able to play 33 minutes in his ill-fated tenure. Frank Lampard rather strangely used him as a No 10 against Real Madrid and Brentford. It was a glamour position but Kante was the man who long excelled at the unglamorous. He became a miracle worker by being the greatest worker of his generation.

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