First the romance, then the new reality. N’Golo Kante’s eight years in England were marked by two phenomena, two dramatic changes in the world of football. In his debut season, with Kante’s help, Leicester secured the unlikely Premier League win that was to remain an isolated one. He’s going to Saudi Arabia, to Al Ittihad, to a project that has greater resources and may have a longer lifespan. Kante, the footballer known to drive a Mini, is being paid an inflated salary, reportedly £86million. Selfless running has proven to be a profitable business.
That it came in the same summer that Leicester were relegated is a coincidence. But an era has come to an end: the three catalysts for English football’s greatest fairytale may no longer play in the Premier League, with Jamie Vardy going under at the Foxes and Riyad Mahrez possibly destined to join Kante after Saudi Arabia. A new force in the global game is now in the Middle East, not the East Midlands.
Kante is seen as the sympathetic legend of Leicester and Chelsea, the unassuming and perhaps inimitable – although Moises Caicedo may be hired to emulate him at Stamford Bridge – the architect of unexpected triumphs. If xG has been a factor in football in recent years, so has NG; The latter was a way of falsifying predictions.
It’s saying something that winning the world championship might not rank among Kante’s top three accomplishments; At least not in this context, because France was at least one of the favorites in 2018. However, their skill rested on a recurring theme in Kante’s career: his ability to do the work of two men, which in turn put Paul Pogba up for adoption with a more offensive briefing.
But Kante’s hat-trick consisted of his back-to-back Premier League games with Leicester and Chelsea, who had finished 14th and 10th respectively in previous seasons, and then the 2021 Champions League. He was arguably the most in every competition outstanding players. In the 2015–16 season, the individual awards went to Vardy and Mahrez before Kante was named both PFA Player of the Year and Footballer of the Year the following season. Assisted by Italy’s Euro 2020 triumph, Jorginho was named Uefa’s Player of the Year 2020-21; It’s no offense for the regista to say he wasn’t even Chelsea’s best midfielder. Kante, man of the match in the final and both semi-finals, was the little man who also acted as a great player, and not just because he scored a disproportionate share of his few goals against fellow Chelsea players.
Chelsea won the Champions League by conceding two goals in seven knockout games. Thomas Tuchel described Kante as “our Salah, our Van Dijk, our De Bruyne”. He was right: Chelsea’s X-Factor footballer was a runner who was playing in France’s third division when he was 22. Kante’s defining traits seemed prosaic: running – he could cover 13km in one game – tackling and intercepting, which he did more than virtually anyone else. But he felt flawless: the tackle king wasn’t sent off for either Chelsea or Leicester. And his brilliance was evident in his uniqueness: while others were looking for their own edge, players with similar ball possession regaining stats like Idrissa Gueye and Wilfred Ndidi were adopted, but no one else had the full package.
As instructive as Tuchel’s homage was, it wasn’t the most fitting praise for Kante. That came from the man who brought him to England, Steve Walsh, who took to whispering “Kante” to the skeptical Claudio Ranieri when their paths crossed in the hallways and in ultimately successful attempts to persuade the manager to let him oblige. A year later, when Leicester became champions, Walsh opined that City played three players at the heart of midfield in their seemingly anachronistic 4-4-2 formation: “[Danny] Drinking water in the middle with edge on both sides”.
And Kante held back trends in tactics with his extraordinary energy. One had the feeling that the teams with him consisted of 12 men. A central midfield trio is a staple in the elite squad these days: unless one of them is Kante, who covers the field of two players, offsetting the times when he was actually outnumbered. The last two teams to win the Premier League with a central midfield duo are Leicester and Chelsea; the first as a team with little possession, the second sometimes with the immobile Cesc Fabregas alongside the high-action Kante. In the last decade, only one team has won the Champions League with just two real central midfielders: Chelsea in 2021. Factor in France in 2018 and Kante made sure tactics and teams worked.
Al-Ittihad will have to question whether such feats are a thing of the past, whether a man whose physicality – combined with his knowledge of the game – made him so good is now in decline. He only made nine appearances for Chelsea last season. Graham Potter is right to feel unlucky in at least one respect: Kante was only able to play 33 minutes during his unfortunate tenure. Oddly enough, Frank Lampard used him as a No10 against Real Madrid and Brentford. It was a glamorous position, but Kante was the man who long excelled at the unglamorous. He became a miracle worker by being the greatest worker of his generation.