No one had ever heard of him but Leicester City knew roughly what they were getting when they signed an unknown N’Golo Kante from yo-yo French club Caen in the summer of 2015.
The diminutive talent had won the ball back in Ligue 1 that season more times than any other player in Europe. Leicester’s then head of recruitment Steve Walsh had good connections with French football and was keen to sign him, even if then manager Claudio Ranieri is believed to have had doubts as to whether a player as small as Kante could handle the Premier League.
Walsh had previously overseen the signing of Riyad Mahrez from Le Havre in January 2014. Once he persuaded Ranieri to get on board, Kante was another masterstroke.
Yet not even as big a supporter as Walsh would or even could have expected the impact Kante would have on English and world football when his chance arrived.
Kante had not long turned 24 when he joined Leicester for less than £6m, but he had only played one season of top flight football in his career at that stage. He had started his senior career in France’s third tier with Boulogne, having earlier been passed over by France’s top clubs.
It was a calculated risk from the Foxes to bring in someone as unproven as Kante, replacing the departed Esteban Cambiasso. The team had only narrowly escaped relegation the previous season, winning seven of their last 10 games to stay up, and Cambiasso had been key.
Leicester’s form was relatively indifferent to begin with. They won a few games and drew a few games, but they couldn’t keep a clean sheet and when Arsenal won 5-2 at the King Power Stadium at the end of September, it looked like it might be another difficult season.
Kante wasn’t thrown in at the deep end. He did start against Arsenal but it was only his third from a possible seven games. After that, he started 30 of the remaining 31 fixtures as both he and Leicester began to thrive and flourish.
Kante’s tireless running at the centre of midfield has come to define his game and it was during that 2015/16 campaign that it was seen on a major stage for the first time. The likes of Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan and Kasper Schmeichel all played huge parts in Leicester’s most unlikely of title wins, but without Kante none of it would have been possible.
Although it was ultimately a brilliantly collective effort, Kante’s influence on Leicester’s defensive record during the 2015/16 season was undeniable as he found his feet. The Foxes conceded 17 goals in the first nine Premier League fixtures, but just 19 in the remaining 29. The only game that Kante subsequently missed after those early weeks was a 2-2 draw against West Brom.
A lack of physical stature is not important when he is faster and fitter than pretty much every player he ever comes up against. He never stops running because he never seemed to get tired.
Former Chelsea teammate Eden Hazard once likened Kante to a rat because he is ‘everywhere’ on the pitch, opponents can never get away from him. International colleague Paul Pogba has said similar, commenting that Kante ‘can run for 11 players’, making him a huge asset to any team.
Having never played international football at any level, Kante was called up by France for the first time in March 2016. Three months later he was at Euro 2016 on home soil. Two years after that he started every game as France won the 2018 World Cup – he would have been an ever-present during the tournament but for a bout of food poisoning that saw him withdrawn from the final in the second half. Illness was seemingly the only thing capable of stopping him.
In 2016, there were questions of the whole Leicester team. Were they one-season wonders? For some, it was true, but for Kante and others it was only the beginning. A move to Chelsea had the potential to see him drowned at a higher level, only for him to take his game to another level.
Kante was just as crucial for Chelsea as he had been for Leicester, his defensive midfield role providing his teammates with the structure they needed to succeed in their own jobs. Come the end of the 2016/17 season, he won the PFA, FWA and Premier League’s Player of the Year awards. He was the first non-attacking player to win the PFA award since 2005 and the FWA award since 2000.
To this day, he remains the only outfield player in Premier League era to have won consecutive titles with different clubs, and the first of any era since Eric Cantona. Even now at 29, there are plenty of clubs who would love to have him in their squad, with European giants Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain keeping an eye on things if Chelsea decide they are ready to sell.
Kante’s style of play mirrors his off-field personality. He has bizarrely become a cult hero as a direct result of his shy and retiring nature, while his lack of ego makes him a perfect teammate.
The player has had to work hard for everything he has achieved and his attitude hasn’t changed, even though he has been one of the best in the world for the last few years. He usually turned up to training back in France riding a push scooter and when he arrived in England he settled for a second hand Mini Cooper to get to training, a car he kept even after he joined Chelsea.
Kante has never been bothered by fame and has little interest in the wealth that comes with being an elite footballer. When he joined Chelsea he was reputedly offered the chance to save on tax by receiving a portion of his earning through an off-shore company, but he refused.
It is the perfect personality for a defensive midfielder, a no-frills position that rarely gets the recognition and applause it deserves. Where others might play with a selfish streak for personal gain, perhaps at the expense of their team, Kante doesn’t seek adulation. The fact it comes anyway is even more of a testament to how effective he really is because he never tries to stand out.
If Kante was any different as a human, he simply wouldn’t be as good as a footballer.