Three seasons ago he was in France's third division; two, the second tier; last season his first in Ligue 1. Now, after a truly sensational debut Premier League campaign, Leicester's pocket destroyer is preparing for Euro 2016 and the Champions League...
Stats Zone Player of the Season N’Golo Kante only started to receive serious plaudits midway through the campaign, long after Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez’s quality had been noted. But there’s a good reason – the Frenchman, amazingly, only started one of Leicester’s first five games of the season.
Signed from Caen shortly before the start of the campaign, Kante was gradually eased into first-team action. Andy King and Gokhan Inler were used in his position, and the Frenchman was initially afforded opportunities at the top of a midfield trio, or on the left.
It was only in the 5-2 defeat to Arsenal, Leicester’s seventh game of the season, that Claudio Ranieri played Kante alongside Danny Drinkwater – the format which would become his default for the rest of Leicester’s incredible title-winning season.
The more Ranieri saw of Kante, the more he liked him. By November, the Frenchman had established himself as a crucial player in Ranieri’s system, and in the 3-0 victory over Newcastle he made a sensational nine tackles and seven interceptions – an astonishingly effective display of midfield ball-winning.
“People think we play with two in midfield,” Leicester’s head of recruitment Steve Walsh said recently. “I say ‘No. We play with Danny Drinkwater in the middle and we play with Kante either side, giving us essentially 12 players on the pitch.’” Judging by the passes received by Drinkwater and Kante during the final-day 1-1 draw at Chelsea, there’s a surprising level of truth to that statement – Drinkwater stays central, Kante shuttles along to either side.
Kante’s rise through the leagues has been remarkable – and somewhat Jamie Vardy-esque. In 2012/13 he was in the French third tier. In 2013/14 he rose into the second division, before spending a sole campaign, 2014/15, in Ligue 1. This was his debut Premier League campaign, and next season he’ll be competing in the Champions League.
More than just holding
Players in Kante’s mould, depending heavily upon their mobility and stamina, often fare surprisingly poorly when it comes to statistics. Kante, however, rightly looks brilliant in a statistical sense, primarily because his ball-winning numbers are absolutely sensational.
Kante made 175 tackles in the Premier League (31 more than any other player) and 156 interceptions (15 more than any other player). Topping either chart would indicate his quality; topping both is extremely rare, and a perfect demonstration of his importance to Leicester. Amazingly, despite his constant tackling, he’s been booked just three times this season.
Kante is more than just a holding player, however. Sometimes compared to former Chelsea defensive midfielder Claude Makelele, he’s actually a much more well-rounded footballer capable of charging forward into attacking positions. His assist for Vardy’s opener against West Ham recently was a perfect demonstration of his sudden bursts, and his intelligent distribution. Kante isn’t an overwhelmingly creative player, but he’s sensible and reliable with the ball.
The horse who sets the tone
Mainly, though, he’s helped Leicester become the Premier League’s best-organised side without possession. “This is not a footballer. This is a fantastic horse,” Ranieri said. “He has a need to be free out there on the pitch. I say to him, ‘You are free to move however you want, but you must help us when we lose the ball. That's all I ask of you. If you start to press the opposition, all of your team-mates will follow you.’”
That pressing has occasionally been crucial. While Leicester’s default gameplan is about sitting deep and waiting to win the ball inside their own third, Kante has helped Leicester press higher up the pitch when necessary.
In particular, the opening 10 minutes of the crucial 3-1 victory over Manchester City showed that Leicester were capable of playing more proactively, forcing mistakes from the opposition and turning over possession in advanced positions. That’s only possible with someone like Kante, who sets the tone for the pressing.
His sensational form has seen him rewarded with a place in France’s Euro 2016 squad on home soil – and he could well force his way into the side itself, considering how much he would suit a box-to-box role in Didier Deschamps’ 4-3-3 formation.
He might well attract interest from other clubs this summer, particularly as rumours suggest there’s a £20m release clause in his Leicester contract. On the strength of this season’s performances, he’s well worth it.
It’s difficult to imagine, though, that Kante will ever replicate this level of influence upon a different side. ‘Big’ clubs simply don’t play the kind of reactive, counter-attacking system Leicester have perfected this season, and therefore Kante won’t ever be capable of dominating a midfield to this extent, with his ball-winning and sudden bursts forward.
Kante will continue to thrive, but it will be difficult for him to ever top this incredible campaign.