N’Golo Kanté – playmaker supreme
A member of two Premiership winning teams, N’Golo Kanté is the sort of midfielder who helps other players to shine further forward. Michael Renouf looks at the development of his career
N’Golo Kanté has won the English Premiership title with two different teams – Leicester City and Chelsea. In fact, he is a member of a very exclusive club – players that have won the Premier League with different clubs in consecutive seasons. The total membership of this club so far is one – only him. Although Aussie stopper Mark Schwarzer did technically win the title with Chelsea and then Leicester, he made a grand total of zero league appearances in the two title-winning teams.
Before Kanté, his French countryman Eric Cantona was the last player to complete this feat, winning the last First Division title in England (before it was rebranded as the Premier League) with Leeds United and then making his influential switch across the Pennines, a signing which many credit as being the start of Manchester United’s dominance of English football for over 25 years.
Kanté was born in Paris on 29 March 1991 to Malian parents who had migrated to France over a decade earlier in 1980 and lived in the Rueil-Malmaison commune in the western suburbs of Paris.
He lost his father at the tragically young age of 11. Subsequently, he helped to support his family by collecting garbage from the streets of the French capital and this would bring him his first memories of the World Cup as he collected recyclables near the stadiums and places fans would gather in to watch the spectacle unfold on television.
His first senior club was Boulogne in Ligue 2 and he made his professional debut in May 2012, coming on for the closing stages of a 2-1 home defeat to Monaco.
He spent the next year in the third tier of French football before stepping back up a division to join Caen for two seasons. From here he would make the move that brought him and Leicester worldwide recognition, thanks to his influence on the title-winning team.
Kanté’s work ethic can be seen on the pitch as he covers more ground, makes more tackles and more interceptions than most. He is the sort of player that enables others, such as his former Leicester City teammate Riyad Mahrez, to shine further forward. Being a defensive midfielder, scoring goals is not top of his to-do list; in fact he scored only one goal for the Foxes in a 2-1 home victory against Watford.
His form for Leicester led to national coach Didier Deschamps calling him up for France duty for the first time in 2016. He made his international bow as a half-time substitute in a 3-2 triumph away to Holland, coming on for Lassana Diarra – who he has cited as being a footballing role model. Four days later, on his 25th birthday, he would score his sole international goal to date in a 4-2 victory over Russia.
With his Premier League medal for 2014/15 safely in his pocket, he was picked as part of France’s squad for Euro 2016, to be held on home soil that summer. France reached the final but Kanté could only watch on, as an unused substitute, as his teammates went down 1-0 in extra time to an Eder goal that meant Portugal and not Les Bleus would take home the trophy.
In a £32m move, N’Golo traded Leicester for London to join Chelsea. This proved an inspired signing as he helped the west London club climb from 10th the previous season to win the title.
The difference he made was quite incredible. When Leicester won the title, they finished 31 points above Chelsea, who just managed to finish in the top half of the league in 10th position. With a Kanté-shaped hole in their title defence and the 5’ 6” midfielder plying his trade for his new employers, the Midlands club finished 12th, 49 points behind the new champions; an incredible overall swing of 80 points!
Again, he would only contribute one goal in the league – the last in a 4-0 demolition of Manchester United, which was the game in which Jose Mourinho berated Antonio Conte for what he saw as disrespectful celebrations.
At the end of the season, Kanté would retain his place in the PFA Team of the Year and also, would inherit the PFA Players’ Player of the Year accolade from his former Leicester teammate, Mahrez. The Football Writers’ Association named him as their Player of the Year.
To win these awards playing in his role is quite phenomenal as for the last few years they have tended to be granted to the more creative players. For example, if we just look at other players from France to win one or both these awards, the roll-call of names includes Eric Cantona, David Ginola, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.
In May 2018 he won his first FA Cup and was named the BBC’s Man of the Match. It was a game that needed all his defensive qualities as Manchester United dominated, but it was the Blues that came away with the trophy thanks to Kanté’s performance, along with an Eden Hazard penalty.
That summer he headed to Russia with the national team and played in all seven of France’s games as they won the most important trophy any player can win, the World Cup. A year after winning the FA Cup along with his Chelsea teammates, he found himself in the Game of Thrones-sounding ‘Land of Fire’ – Azerbaijan – to help Chelsea overcome Arsenal 4-1 and lift the UEFA Europa League Cup.
What next for the humble and diminutive defensive midfielder?
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