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, and 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.
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.