18 May Kante the legend
Diminutive in stature, a giant of a player. N’Golo Kante is an outstanding footballer whose influence cannot be measured by statistics alone.
He has a modest record of one Premier League goal this season. His personality is modest, too, while he is always smiling.
The 26-year-old, who stands at 5ft 6in (one metre 68 centimetres), is a selfless player on the pitch and understated off it, parking his Mini at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground alongside the super cars and 4x4s. He would probably prefer to run to work.
Once the term used was “water carrier” for the role Kante fulfils.
But that did many of those who look after the nuts and bolts, while others apply the gloss, a disservice.
Heat maps of the midfielder have suggested he is everywhere and his Chelsea team-mate Eden Hazard joked the midfielder must have a twin, so omnipresent is the Frenchman.
Kante has irrepressible athleticism, indomitable will and astounding game intelligence, anticipating the play, covering ground and breaking the mould of the conventional midfielder.
All those attributes have now been formally recognised by his peers and the game’s journalists, with Kante voted as the best player in the country by the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Football Writers’ Association, whose award he accepts on Thursday evening.
Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte persuaded Kante to swap surprise Premier League champions Leicester for a Chelsea team which finished 10th last term and was out of Europe.
He opted out of the Champions League, viewing, as usual, the bigger picture.
Now, Kante has become the first player since Eric Cantona in 1992 and 1993 to win successive English championships with different clubs.
But Cantona did not play full seasons with Leeds or Manchester United.
Mark Schwarzer was part of successive title-winning squads – at Chelsea and as a Leicester team-mate of Kante’s – but the goalkeeper did not make a Premier League appearance for the Foxes.
Kante quickly proved why he was a priority signing for Conte, who admitted he only became aware of the midfielder after his £5.6million move to Leicester from Caen.
A year later, Kante moved on to Stamford Bridge for £32m, a third of the cost of Paul Pogba’s move from Juventus to Manchester United.
The transfer fee which Kante could now command would likely make oligarchs and Sheikhs think twice before signing the cheque, but Conte insists the midfielder’s presence is no title-winning guarantee.
Conte said: “If it is so simple, next season I think every team would pay £100million for N’Golo and would be sure to win the title.”
Kante is another player who got away from Arsene Wenger, who was aware of him from his spells at Boulogne and Caen.
And when Kante was exposed by Mesut Ozil in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Chelsea in September, Wenger may have thought he was correct.
But Kante thrived as Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation and Chelsea won 13 successive Premier League games.
He scored his first Chelsea goal in the 4-0 Premier League win over Manchester United and his second in the 1-0 FA Cup quarter-final defeat of Jose Mourinho’s men.
Mourinho’s dream was reportedly to pair Pogba and Kante together at United, but the latter preferred Chelsea.
The self-proclaimed Special One may even go as far as to say that it is his team, plus Kante, who are the champions.
Hazard, Diego Costa, Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and others have all been integral to Chelsea’s success, but Kante even more so.
Chelsea’s Premier League winning run came to an end at Tottenham in early January, but they swiftly bounced back.
They may not have done if Paris-born Kante had opted for Mali instead of France, as he would have been required for the African Nations Cup.
Leicester urged him to choose the latter and he played at Euro 2016 before moving to Chelsea three days after Conte was unveiled using one word more than any other – work.
Kante has been the heartbeat of Chelsea’s success. Former Juventus and Italy midfielder Conte could see something of himself in the midfielder but says Kante is even better.
And Conte added that he would not urge Kante to rest as former Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri used to do.
Conte reckons Kante can improve by looking to pass forwards as his first option more often and by scoring more.
As always with Conte, he demands more – and hard work to achieve it.
Expect Kante to get even better.