Welcome to World Class: N'Golo Kante

Dec 17, 2020, 10:00 AM GMT
N'Golo Kante is a two-time Premier League winner, and has also lifted the World Cup
N'Golo Kante is a two-time Premier League winner, and has also lifted the World Cup | Matt Burt/90min
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In an age of polarisation, finding a universally adored footballer is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

The player who comes closest to achieving unconditional love across club and country divides is N'Golo Kante, who stories of humility, bashfulness and kindness are legendary.

Whether it be trying to run to training when he first arrived in England, refusing to upgrade his Mini Cooper after signing a big money deal at Chelsea, or going round to an Arsenal fan's house for dinner after meeting him at a local mosque, it's hard to resist falling head over heels for Kante the man.

N'Golo Kante
Kante has enjoyed a trophy ladened career | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Kante the footballer is even easier to fawn over. Blessed with the stamina of a marathon runner and an ability to read the game with frame by frame precision, his emergence as a world class defensive midfielder was wonderfully unexpected.

Beating Marseille to his signature in summer 2015 is one of the best things that has ever happened to Leicester City. During his first season, Kante missed just one game, playing so well he even managed to make Danny Drinkwater look like an elite midfielder.

The story of his time at Leicester is well told but thanks to the equally endearing tales spun by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez that campaign, just how influential he was to the title win is sometimes understated.

During his maiden Premier League season, no player racked up more tackles or interceptions than Kante. His legs never tired and his smile never faded. The turnovers he forced were also vital to way the Foxes romped to the title. Soon after Kante won the ball back he quickly offloaded it to Drinkwater or Mahrez who invariably then looked to release Vardy with one of their trademark long balls.

Although, he would be overlooked for all the national awards that season, his teammates who had the pleasure of playing alongside him week in, week out were not so shortsighted; the Frenchman scooping the club's Players' Player of the Year award in 2016.

"He played as two players. The referee counted 11 but we were 12."

Claudio Ranieri in 2016

One year later, Kante would become the first player to secure back to back to Premier League titles with different clubs, playing a huge part in transforming Antonio Conte's Chelsea into winners. With Kante protecting the back three, Chelsea earned 43 more points than they did the previous season and ended up clinching the title by seven points.

Meanwhile, the club he left behind fell off a cliff without him, collecting 37 less points during the 2016/2017 campaign, as well as registering an unholy drop off in their tackles and interceptions.

While it would be disingenuous to suggest that Kante is worth 40 points a season, these stats spoke volumes of his transformative brilliance and he was correctly awarded a the PFA Player of the Year award at the end of the season.

However, this was three-and-a-half years ago now. What is it that makes him world class in 2020?

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Kante was a key part of Conte's title winners | BEN STANSALL/Getty Images

Well, a good barometer of any elite player is how they deal with adversity and Kante has had his fair share of that in recent times.

Firstly, after Conte departed Stamford Bridge in 2018, he became the subject of a frenzied debate. It stemmed from new manager Maurizio Sarri's attempts to convert him into a shuttling, box-to-box midfielder. In Sarri's system, Kante was given license to push forward, with the more creative Jorginho deployed as the deepest midfielder.

Never has a change in position sparked such outrage. Every Monday Night, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville seemed to discuss it on Sky Sports and the move also split Chelsea supporters who engaged in a brutal war of words on Twitter.

Now the dust has settled, it is fair to say that the move probably did not get the best out of Kante. The 2018/2019 campaign witnessed a marked decrease in tackles, interceptions and touches compared to the previous campaign, and a return of just nine goal involvements in 52 games was also disappointing.

Kante's second piece of misfortune has been the injuries he has endured in recent times. While Frank Lampard's arrival at the beginning of the 2019/2020 season did seem him return to his strongest defensive midfield position, he ended up missing 27 matches with a string of fitness issues.

It was a frustrating time for the Frenchman. Some started to doubt his brilliance, with a summer move to Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain being mentioned.

Thankfully for Chelsea, they saw sense and keeping faith in the diminutive destroyer is paying dividends this season. While Thiago Silva has been handed most of the credit for Chelsea's defensive resurgence, an even bigger factor has been having Kante back, fit and firing.

Frank Lampard, N Golo Kante
Kante has played well under Lampard | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

After 11 Premier League matchdays, Kante had made the most interceptions and only two players had completed more tackles. Meanwhile, he also ranked in the top five for blocks and top three for successful pressures.

The true mark of a world class player is how you respond to your knocks and Kante has come back emphatically this season, taking his game back to the levels we all expect of the World Cup winner.
Don't let his smile fool you. Beneath it is a competitive edge that makes Kante the unrivalled, top defensive midfielder in England and one of the very best in the world.

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