There’s an old line about energetic midfielders that suits Leicester’s Frenchman so much, you can buy it emblazoned on a t-shirt: “Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by N’Golo Kante.”
Kante was the first signing of the Claudio Ranieri era, and while the Italian’s appointment was met with “Why him?”, the Frenchman’s arrival created a ripple of “Who’s he?”: an unheralded midfielder who rarely scored for a provincial Ligue 1 team, and surely no suitable replacement for the esteemed Esteban Cambiasso. Surely that would be the much more fêted arrival, Gokhan Inler.
But as usual Leicester’s recruitment czar Steve Walsh had done his homework, and badgered his former Chelsea colleague Ranieri into spending £5.6m on Kante. Good move. At the heart of Leicester’s story are the cold, hard statistics of super-efficient overachievement, and Kante has racked up phenomenal numbers.
His 175 tackles and 157 interceptions were unparalleled by any player (let alone midfielder) in this season’s Premier League. He also totted up 326 ball recoveries, and unlike many one-dimensional “defensive” midfielders was reliable in distribution, with 82% passing accuracy. (Consider that against Leicester's overall figure of 70.5%, only 'worsened' by West Brom.)
No wonder he was in the PFA Team of the Year, but unlike many award-winners this wasn’t for a short burst of form: his performance peaks were spread over the season. He made 10 tackles at Bournemouth (Aug 29) and at Chelsea (May 15), and nine at Newcastle (Nov 21). He made nine interceptions at home to Watford (Nov 7), eight at Swansea (Oct 17) and another eight in the crucial 4-0 home win over Swansea (Apr 24).
As the Stats Zone screenshare illustrates, he didn’t limit these tackles to a narrow zone in front of the defence – he covered the pitch indefatigably, repurposing a position previously thought outmoded: the box-to-box midfielder. Moreover, he was reliably accurate in his tackling: he was only 25th on the list of fouls conceded, quite some achievement given the volume of challenges he made.
Other midfielders have done well this term: Idrissa Gueye has been a rare success in Aston Villa’s shocker of a season, doggedly totting up 144 tackles and 141 interceptions (each topped only by Kante) and 344 ball recoveries; Kante’s sidekick Danny Drinkwater made 106 tackles, 55 interceptions and 342 ball recoveries, while Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele totted up 104 tackles, 56 interceptions and 83 dribbles in just 27 games.
But such was Kante’s dominance of the field that for comparison we have to go back to previous winners of the Stats Zone Central Midfielder of the Year Award: Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic (2014/15), Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak (2013/14) and Morgan Schneiderlin, then of Southampton, in 2012/13. Put simply, Kante was much better than them, too: his 179 tackles easily outdo Matic’s 129, Jedinak’s 102 and Schneiderlin’s 146, while his 157 interceptions beat the 139 recorded by Jedinak and Schneidlerin and dwarf Matic’s 72.
Such omnipresence allowed Kante and Drinkwater to do the work of three men, meaning that Leicester’s 4-4-2 system wasn’t overwhelmed in central areas, giving them overloads elsewhere – specifically allowing Riyad Mahrez more creative freedom to wreak havoc. It all seemed to work out pretty well, and nobody’s saying “Who’s he?” anymore.
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Gary Parkinson is a freelance writer, editor, trainer, muso, singer, actor and coach. He spent 14 years at FourFourTwo as the Global Digital Editor and continues to regularly contribute to the magazine and website, including major features on Euro 96, Subbuteo, Robert Maxwell and the inside story of Liverpool's 1990 title win. He is also a Bolton Wanderers fan.