The best player in the world? - Now is the time for N'Golo Kante to shine for France
He's seen as the little man with the big heart, but he's been kept in Paul Pogba's shadow for Les Bleus - at least until now.
It was less than two years ago that N’Golo Kante made his way from Caen to Leicester, a little-known midfielder ready to blossom in a manner that no-one could have predicted.
Of course, the 25-year-old was respected in France, with one of Ligue 1’s biggest clubs, Marseille, making moves to sign him, yet the financial problems of the Stade Velodrome side at that time prevented any deal from taking place.
It was a twist of fate that would have a profound effect on Kante’s future. Had OM the power to sign him, he would surely have headed south instead of north, and he would not be heralded today as one of the outstanding players in the world’s most financially powerful league.
He played a major role in helping Leicester claim the Premier League crown – a quite unthinkable achievement – and then secured a move to Chelsea last summer for a fee of £32 million. At Stamford Bridge, his legend has only grown and as Antonio Conte’s men make their way to reclaiming the English title, Kante has been hailed as their outstanding player.
“He’s the best player in the world,” gushed Chelsea legend Frank Lampard recently. Many similar tributes have been paid.
Curiously, though, while he is heralded as one of the English league’s outstanding players over the last two seasons, this superstar status is not reflected back home, partially due to the player’s discreet nature, particularly in comparison to extrovert international team-mate Paul Pogba.
“He’s seen as a phenomenon in England,” France goalkeeping coach Christophe Lollichon explained. “The consistency of his performances and his extremely tidy play has played him in the spotlight. He plays with his body, is hard in the tackle, he copes with situations that are not easy in England.
“He’s not big but on the field, he’s a giant.”
Lollichon’s statement is easy to back up with statistics. Since arriving in England, Kante has completed nearly 50 percent more defensive plays – tackles and interceptions – than any other player in the division. No player has achieved greater figures in either category.
His high point came when Chelsea met Liverpool at the beginning of February, when he completed a record 14 tackles. This is an astonishing figure when it is considered that in most matches, even the most combative player only achieves four or five successful challenges.
Such is the quality France boast in their midfield, the heir to Claude Makelele, the legendary defensive midfielder for Les Bleus during the first decade of the millennium, has toiled to make an impact at international level.
Paris Saint-Germain’s Blaise Matuidi offers similar attributes but is more dynamic in an offensive sense, while Paul Pogba, who became the world’s most expensive player thanks to his move to Manchester United from Juventus last summer, has been unmoveable – up until now, at least.
With Pogba, in contrast to his international team-mate, struggling to hit his best level in England and out of the forthcoming matches against Luxembourg and Spain because of injury, the door is open for Kante to finally shine.
Opportunities in the past have been limited under France boss Didier Deschamps, who was during his playing days one of the most tigerish of midfielders. In the Euro 2016 second round victory over Ireland, it was Kante’s exit that sparked a comeback for the hosts, though that was as much about the change of system and the introduction of Kingsley Coman as it was about the Chelsea player’s exit.
Also read: Kante: I don't feel like the Premier League's best player
If circumstances worked against the Paris-born star previously, things are falling into place now.
“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Deschamps commented earlier this week. “He’s an important player and could be even more important in the future. He’s very effective. What’s more, he’s started to score – it’s perfect.”
For all of the player’s eye-catching displays on the field, he is, however, extremely discreet away from it. Only in the past few months has he arrived on social media, and even on the field, he admits that he only talks when it is absolutely essential.
Nevertheless, he is a player that the footballing world is starting to speak about in increasingly high terms. For France to appreciate his talents, however, he will first have to earn a regular berth with the national side – and that means performing well over the course of the next two matches.