First, the numbers. In the past three seasons, N’Golo Kante has played 129 club matches for Chelsea and Leicester City, scoring four goals and providing seven assists. In roughly the same time frame, he has played 29 matches for France, with a goal and an assist. So he’s not a goal-scorer or goal provider.
He has got a total of 21 yellow cards in that same period, and not a single sending-off – so he’s not really a defender either, with those last-ditch tackles, taking one for the team.
At 168 cm – shorter than Xherdan Shaqiri, shorter than Tuesday’s opponent Dries Mertens – you could miss him on the pitch amid the muscled-up giants of the modern game.
And yet, in those three seasons, Kante has seen his market valuation go from €9m, when Leicester signed him from French club Caen, to €36m, when they sold him to Chelsea, to the €100m Chelsea are now reportedly demanding of any club that wishes to sign him now.
N’Golo Kante has been one of the breakout stars of the 2018 World Cup and if France win it all, he’ll have played a major part.
In those three seasons, Kante has won the Premier League title twice – with different clubs – and been voted player of the year by his Premier League peers and by the English football writers’ association, each a difficult constituency to please.
On Tuesday, Kante was the wall standing between Belgium’s star-studded attack and the French goal they couldn’t penetrate.
So, for those who’ve come in late, who is N’Golo Kante and why is he important to club and country?
The second part first. Kante’s role, in one line, is to stop the opposition’s attacks before they become dangerous, anywhere on the pitch, and to then start his own team’s movement forward before the opposition has time to organise itself. It sounds simple and complex at the same time – how could one man do both jobs, and all over the pitch?
And that’s the key to Kante: His ability to be wherever the danger is – or, actually, a second before the danger arises. That explains those facts above: He is not interested in scoring goals, he is not necessarily the player who will pass to the scorer either. His job is to anticipate, intercept, pass, anticipate. As France’s coach Didier Deschamps said on Monday: “He is an essential part of our plan. You don’t want to just steal the ball from your opponents. Kante uses the ball, he has a lot of trajectories for his passing.”
Deschamps would have an affinity with Kante; he was dismissed as the water carrier in his playing days by Eric Cantona – his sole role being to pass the ball to his team-mates. Kante is the water-collector and carrier. The ultimate firefighter.
So how does his play help his team? Basically, by enabling swift counter attacks. Leicester City’s game plan was built around the speed of their striker Jamie Vardy, who would run at opposing defences in a quick counter; the key was to get the ball to him as fast as possible once his team had the ball. France use a similar style with the tear away Kylian Mbappe. Chelsea have Eden Hazard. They all need someone who can turn a threatening move against their team into a threatening move by their team in the shortest possible time, before the opposition can recoup.
That’s what Kante does.
He is an unlikely star on YouTube, with clips focusing on his reading of the game and his ability to cover distance at speed. One short clip – 20-odd seconds – features a sequence where he gives away the ball, then wins it back three times in succession each time a team-mate gives it away.
The most common description of Kante is that he’s everywhere at one time. It’s what Steve Walsh, the Leicester scout who spotted him while he was playing in France, says about him. “When I first saw him (playing for French club Caen) I thought ‘is there two of him?”
When Leicester improbably won the Premier League title in 2016, the joke was that they won it with three players in midfield – Danny Drinkwater in the middle and Kante on either side of him.
Those jokes – born out of sheer incredulity – followed him to Chelsea. His club team-mate Hazard, Belgium’s captain and creative force who Kante stopped in Russia, said: “Sometimes, when I’m on the pitch, I think I see him twice. One on the left, one on the right. I think we play with twins.”
Marcel Desailly, a former France captain, tweeted this probably unoriginal joke when Kante was helping Chelsea to the league title in 2017, “71% of the earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by N’Golo Kante.”
That same season, Thierry Henry – who is now on the Belgium coaching staff – wrote of his visit to a Chelsea training session: “I went over to him and stood in front of him. And I poked him in the chest. I had to, just to check if he was real!”
And yet all of this might not have happened. Kante’s football career began late – so late that, at 21, when his current peers were making their first millions, winning their first championship medals, making their first headlines, Kante was still studying for a diploma in vocational accounting.
The problem was his size; no academy in France signed him because of his height. Perhaps it was understandable; there is a picture of Kante, pre-teen, with his local club team-mates after winning a trophy. There is only a couple of years’ age difference but he is about half the height of the others, a baby among boys. Watching him in training today presents a similar image: a boy among men.
But he had quality and he had determination. He finally made his professional debut at 21, for Bolougne against Monaco, and his progress since then has been swift. Yet, like an expert tackler, he has kept both feet on the ground. In an age of football stars driving Ferraris and Lamborghinis, Kante drives a Mini – it was the first car he bought when he moved to England in 2015 and it was easy for him to learn how to drive in it. The story goes that he bought the car only after being persuaded to abandon his plan of running to training every day. There’s a lovely video out there of a doorman at the plush Chelsea Harbour Hotel, where the club team assembles before matches, kitted out in top hat and formal coat and opening the door of the Mini Cooper for Kante.
Kante is also notoriously reserved. Those who’ve spent long spells of time with him – whether team-mates who drove him to training, or a flatmate back in France – remember him saying absolutely nothing. But occasionally he would break into that innocent, gap-toothed smile. He hasn’t given too many interviews but one journalist who has interviewed him, Jonathan Northcroft of the Sunday Times, writes of “the genuineness of the look in his eyes”.
In a game that has at one level become increasingly complex, with multiple systems and formations, Kante keeps things simple. Where the game celebrates its goalscorers, dribblers and creative geniuses, Kante minds the baseline. He never did become the accountant but out on the field, Kante is the one who will ensure his team remains on the credit side.