Chelsea’s Quiet Man, N’golo Kante, Would Be A Deserved PFA Player Of The Year


When you are 5’6″, a Mini is a pragmatic choice of vehicle. Anything else might be construed as ostentatious. The last thing N’Golo Kante would want to be accused of being is ostentatious.

It should come as no surprise that the best pickpocket in the Premier League likes to live his life in the shadows.

Somehow Kante in a Bentley would seem like a Borrower taking residence in Trump Tower. For now, and one hopes forever, he’s happy driving his Mini. Arguably the best player in the Premier League is perhaps its most unassuming.

In a piece for the Telegraph last season, Alan Smith wrote a sweet story of how over the previous summer a Leicester Citymember of staff, on seeing new signing Kante loitering at the club’s training ground, innocently asked if he was waiting for his mum and dad to pick him up. It seems the baby-faced assassin is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s heir apparent, as well as Claude Makelele’s.

At the time, the £5.6 million signing from Caen was so much of an unknown quantity even his new manager, Claudio Ranieri, held serious reservations over whether such a Lilliputian frame could cope with the physicality of the Premier League. Had then head of recruitment Steve Walsh not convinced him otherwise, it seems almost impossible Leicester would have written one of the the most remarkable chapters in sporting history.

Kante might still be at Caen, Chelsea almost certainly wouldn’t be running away with the title, and Arsene Wenger would probably still be trying to sign him for Arsenal.

It is about this time of year that voting slips for the PFA Player of the Year are circulated. It’s hard to see how Kante will not make the six-man shortlist, just as he did last season. It would be fitting in a campaign in which holding/sitting/pressing midfielders have become very much back in vogue that the poster boy of the position be crowned the league’s best player.

Few would dispute Kante would breeze into the first XI of any of the top six. A bolder if hardly outrageous claim is whoever signed the France international over the summer would have had the best chance of winning the title.

History does not bode well, however, for water-carriers in terms of individual honours. In the 43 seasons the award has been presented, it’s hard to find a winner similar in style to Kante. The first recipient, Norman Hunter of Leeds United, was a centre-half, and there have been a fair few since, but holding midfielders are seemingly on a par with full-backs in terms of popularity with fellow pros.

 It is interesting Kante was Leicester’s Players’ Player of the Year last season, while the PFA Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year went to Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy respectively.

Steven Gerrard was the last central-midfield player to earn the PFA accolade, in 2005/06, but then Kante is more a Ken Loach kitchen-sink drama to the Liverpool man’s Hollywood blockbuster.

Roy Keane winning it in 1999/2000 would perhaps be the closest match to Kante there has been. Although the only time the Irishman tended to go unnoticed was when he had been sent off. The former Manchester United man also probably screamed spoke more in the average game than Kante has accumulatively since arriving in England.

Cesc Fabregas‘ recent lament at the state of a modern game that worships at the altar of effectiveness over aesthetics was interpreted by the mischievous to be a thinly veiled dig at Kante, the man who has replaced him in Chelsea’s midfield under Conte. Think Garfield rolling his eyes at Odie and you’ve a fair picture.

“I don’t think my physical abilities are the best—I’m not the quickest, I’m not the strongest, I’m not the sharpest, so you have to be ahead of the game if a player like me wants to succeed in football,” Fabregas said, per the Mirror, sounding not a little like a university professor whose wife has just run off with one of his gym-buff students.

“To be a football player today if you are very strong or you run a lot or stuff like that it’s easier. Today it’s more difficult for the more talented players to succeed.”

Meow. If the Spanish schemer quits Chelsea in the summer expect Whiskas to rival China for his services.

Criticising Kante’s ability on the ball seems to be a bit of a thing at the minute for people struggling to accept he is now full-on mainstream. They might not like it, but he’s going be headlining major festivals over the summer rather than playing the ukulele tent.

Even Conte’s had a bit of a pop, quietly bemoaning to Sky Sports Italia his midfielder’s predilection to play horizontal passes (h/t the Telegraph’s Matt Law). Maybe he should think about giving Kante a whisk so he can whip up a cake in between dominating each of Chelsea’s rivals in turn.

In an era where if two footballers were to mate, their offspring would probably be born with a huge pair of headphones instead of ears, it’s hard to separate the shy from ignorant. By all accounts, Kante belongs in the former camp.

He’s the neighbour who is always pleasant but gives nothing away. He sets off for work at the crack of dawn and gets home before you. If the police ever asked about him, the best you’d be able to offer is that he’s a man.

It’s left then to those in the inner sanctum to inform what makes him tick. Just this week Kurt Zouma was effusive in his praise when discussing the Parisian with French publication L’Equipe (via ESPN FC): “For me, he’s been incredible in every game this season. Off the pitch, he’s very simple, very timid, the others rarely hear his voice.

“He’s not someone who’ll come and talk, you have to go to him to hear his little voice. He’s next to me in the dressing room, I often bother him, make fun of him a little bit.

“He makes me laugh so much. He’s really funny. I like him a lot, and everyone loves him in the dressing room.

“He’s so timid, but so impressive on the pitch! He deserves everything he gets.”

As Russian philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said: “If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analysing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man.”

Kante, who grew up as one of nine siblings in a busy apartment in Rueil-Malmaison, Paris, possesses a smile wider than he is high.

The paradox in today’s game is that footballers have arguably never been further away from the average supporter, yet simultaneously via social media are never more than a scroll away. Kante genuinely seems to want a simple life, as opposed to just a private one.

He’s definitely achieved the rare feat of being omnipresent on the field yet unknowable off it. Conte might struggle to pick out his voice off the radio, let alone the rest of us.

Thierry Henry, the first player to be named PFA Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons, in 2002/03 and 2003/04, believes Kante would be a worthy recipient.

“I see no reason why he shouldn’t be PFA Player of the Year at the end of the season,” he told The Sun. “It’s around now that the voting slips start to drop on the doormats of pros and there are loads of worthy candidates this time.

“Usually your Kante-type player goes relatively unnoticed. They are only missed when they’re not there. But Kante is so special, you do notice him.”

Kante is a magnet for statistics like few other players. This in turn invariably sparks counter-debates among those who watch football with a spreadsheet to hand. The theory is the Frenchman makes so many tackles because he’s prone to giving the ball away and then has to recover his own mistakes. Here was me thinking the ability to cover your own arse was a good thing.

To the naked eye, Kante’s performance against Liverpool—where his 14 tackles were the most by any player in a single game for more than two years, and 11 more than any other player on the pitch—was an act of almost freakish athleticism. It was a masterclass that brought to mind Walsh’s quote about the man he brought to England, per BBC Sport: “We play Drinkwater in the middle and Kante either side!”

Mesut Ozil, swamped by him the following weekend in Chelsea’s 3-1 over Arsenal, can’t claim he hadn’t been warned.

According to official Premier League statistics, Kante this season has made the third most tackles (86), sixth most passes (1,471), joint-ninth most interceptions (55) and had the seventh most touches (1,847).

Even those firmly in Camp Cesc would struggle to curb their enthusiasm for the fact Kante has made more tackles than any other Premier League player over the past three seasons, despite having only played in England for not much more than one-and-a-half seasons. In the words of Larry David, that’s pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Whatever your position on lies, damned lies and statistics, what is indisputable is the vastly differing seasons Leicester and Chelsea are experiencing than the last one.

While it would be to draw too simplistic and neat a conclusion to suggest Leicester slumping and Chelsea soaring is solely down to Kante leaving one for the other, it would be equally remiss not to accept the common denominator in both of these scenarios has been a hugely significant factor.

At this stage last season, with Kante in their side, Leicester were top of the Premier League with 53 points. They are currently 17th with 21 points. Last term, a Kante-less Chelsea were 13th with 30 points; they are currently top with 60 points. Collectively the two sides are 62 points better off with Kante in their ranks. That’s more simple maths than statistics.

Chelsea were always going to be better this season, while Leicester were always going to be worse. No one, though, could have anticipated just how dramatically the most diminutive Frenchman since Napoleon would tip the scales.

At Leicester he made average players look very good, at Chelsea he has made very good players look exceptional.

Alongside him, Nemanja Matic is back to his rangy best. The Serb is an octopus of a player again who always seems to have an extra leg; last season Jose Mourinho would have gladly thrown him back into the sea such was the brittleness of both his form and confidence.

Without his partner in crime, Leicester’s Danny Drinkwater wears the haunted look of a man who knows the best part of his career has already happened.

Surely it is telling that not a single Foxes player has matched their form of last season. There’s a case to say Kante has exceeded his.

Conte’s system dictates he must play further up the field than he did at Leicester. While his touch is sometimes a little heavy, there’s no doubt he has a neat range of short passing and can hit a long diagonal. The key is the speed in which he does it. He plays football like a chess master, always a couple of moves ahead of his opponent.

Over the past few weeks, many have drawn comparisons with Makelele. There are not many midfielders who would grumble with that, but Kante has it in him to be even better.

Makelele gave such a security to Chelsea’s back four the club didn’t bother with insurance for years and never locked the back door. What he couldn’t do was move with the ball like Kante.

Today’s game, with its obsession with pressing and counter-pressing, along with quick transitions, means holding players need to be technicians as much as they are destroyers. Kante is the perfect mix.

With Chelsea 10 points clear at the top of the league, Kante is odds-on to become the first player to win consecutive titles with different clubs since Eric Cantona did it with Leeds United and Manchester United in 1992 and 1993. Technically Mark Schwarzer could make a similar claim having won titles at Chelsea and Leicester over the past two seasons, but he didn’t make an appearance for the Foxes despite receiving a winners’ medal.

For one of English football’s truly great artists (Cantona, not Schwarzer) to hand over such a mantle to a player like Kante would allow Didier Deschamps to crack a smile for the first time since France lost to Portugal in the final of Euro 2016.

Cantona famously said his compatriot Deschamps would never be more than a water-carrier, adding caustically, via MailOnline: “You can find players like him on every street corner.”

Even Cantona would have to accept a player like Kante is a one-off, totally unique. In reality Kante is no more a water-carrier than Cantona was a target man. Special players define their positions rather than the other way round.

I was going to write similarly gushing praise for Kante’s rivals for the Player of the Year gong, with team-mates David Luiz, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard all in the running. Then there’s Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Toby Alderweireld, Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez, Everton‘s Romelu Lukaku, or maybe Manchester City‘s Kevin De Bruyne, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane and Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But then what’s the point? Kante would only intercept my copy before it was published to snuff out any chance a rival may have of stealing an advantage.

Or more likely he’d just never publish it. Best to stay in the shadows until matchday, after all.

Source: Bleacher Report

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