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The Man from Nowhere: The Rise of N’Golo Kante

Just two seasons in Europe’s top flight football and N’Golo Kante is already being ranked as the best midfielder in the world.

Chelsea legend Frank Lampard described him as the “best central midfielder in the world” while former England captain and a BBC Sport pundit at Stamford Bridge, Alan Shearer said, “I think you are looking at the Football Writers’ player of the year and the players’ player of the year.”

Too soon to call it or are we looking at a reckoning midfield force football can’t quite comprehend?

Former Red Devils defender Phil Neville described the Frenchman as the “most effective midfielder in Europe at the moment” adding, “I don’t see anyone with the influence he has on a team.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“He’s a number six, an eight and a 10. He breaks up play and then sometimes he finishes it off too.”[/perfectpullquote]

Kante’s move to Chelsea had unintended consequences with many questioning his relevance, choice and consistently getting a first team appearance in one of the biggest clubs in Europe.

More so, it seemed like worthwhile the trade for Leicester who made a good profit off a player who masked his performance behind a mediocre personality. Or so it would seem.

A £32 million reported transfer fee speaks for itself especially when it took one season with a newly promoted but surprising and well deserving champion of the 2015/2016 English Premier League season.

Leicester bought him for £5.6 million from the French Ligue 1 in 2015 where he played for Caen after rising up the ranks from club Boulogne.

See how his worth instantaneously multiplied? It takes most players a minimum of four seasons to generate such a value.

The downside, Kante’s departure drilled a massive hole in Leicester’s midfield which going by standards this season, left many teams easily wondering through Leicester’s midfield resulting to the team’s poor performance after raking a top four finish, only to staggeringly drop to the bottom half of the table this season.

Kante now has the last laugh and is well on his way to a second back-to-back English Premier League title, should Chelsea maintain a winning streak in the remaining games.

Eric Cantona anyone? Remember when the former French international and Manchester United legend became the first ever player to win back-to-back titles with different clubs? Instrumentally at that.

It is not that Kante’s presence came with a certain hyped fame, it is because he plays his role perfectly but also selflessly while covering for his teammates and allowing them to focus on scoring goals with ease.

Chelsea is undoubtedly a solid and the best performing team in the league this season but without a supporting midfield characterized by the efficiency with which they recover possession, all is lost.

“I don’t need to say something about N’Golo. Everyone knows about him — he is everywhere,” Chelsea star Eden Hazard told Chelsea TV following Chelsea’s 2-1 win over West Ham.

It was also in that same game that Kante’s interception led to Hazard’s opening goal in the March clash.

Hazard added,

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”I think sometimes when I’m on the pitch I see him twice, one on the left, one on the right. I think he plays with a twin.[/perfectpullquote]

“He is a fantastic player and he helps the team a lot.”

Kante isn’t even your average height midfielder. Standing at 5 ft 61/2 in, he comes up short against his opponents but the French professional player makes up for his disadvantage with agility, resilience, quick thinking, flourishing footwork and will not let anyone glide past him without a fight.

“The man is not doing his job… he is doing more than his job!”  Patrick Vieira said of Kante while telling Copa90.

It is not just what he can do with the ball, it is also the fact that off the ball, his role is just as pivotal. His timing when challenging for the ball is well calculated and has a discipline to it.

“But that is why he is the type of player who works for the team and for the other ones,” Vieira a former Arsenal and French international midfield marvel added.

“Looking at the comments from the Chelsea players and even at Leicester they love him because the guy is working for the team.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”He is putting the team before himself and doing all the dirty work for his teammates. That’s a quality you don’t find very often.”[/perfectpullquote]

It may appear like Kante’s football journey played out like every regular upcoming star. Well not quite. Instead, football was playing hard to get. You could say one look at him and he appears obscured on the field.

Born in Paris to Malian parents, Kante began his career at the age of eight at JS Suresnes in the western suburbs of the capital where he remained for a decade unaware and of little interest to top tier teams, because of his small stature and selfless style of play. Ironic isn’t it?

“I started football at the age of 10,” Kante tells the official Chelsea website.

“In Paris a lot of people play football and there are some I knew who are footballers now, but not at the professional level.

“At Suresnes I learned a lot. I had good coaching at this club and it was like playing with friends.

“Sometimes people maybe say I was a little small when I tried to go to these clubs but I think maybe when I was this age I did not have the quality of football for going to them. So I stayed at Suresnes until I was 19.”

However, professional football had not dawned on him at the time. Nevertheless, that did not deter this star in the making from building his way up the ranks with admirable humility and character.

“Then I did a one-week test at Boulogne and that was very good. They told me I can come and play for their second team, not for their first team,” he added.

Four years ago, Kante was not even playing regular first team football in the French 3rd division so he started from the bottom.

It was at 19 that he got his chance to play for Boulogne’s reserve team after being snubbed by several clubs.

It is from there that Kante’s footprint became visible to the football world making his professional debut in the last game of the Ligue 2 season in 2012.

“They (Boulogne) were in the sixth tier and it was their reserve team that I played for.

“With the reserve team we got promoted to the fifth tier so then I at that time, I moved up to the first team who were at that time playing in the third tier.

“It was when I left my own environment in Suresnes and played for Boulogne that I finally started to have a desire and a belief that I could make it as a professional footballer,” Kante told LCFC.

“At Boulogne I learned a lot of the technical and the tactics and this made me improve a lot.

“I wasn’t thinking to play in the Premier League or something like that at that stage, but when I went to Boulogne I had the ambition to become a professional football player and my ambition was to get in the first team.

“When I went into the first team it was a pleasure,” he told Chelsea’s official website.

In 2013 he joined Ligue 2 side Caen and from there is when Kante truly made the best of what he was afforded and the 26-year-old was instrumental in moving the side up to Ligue 1.

“But when I go there I was 22, and the reputation of Caen is to be a very good academy for becoming professionals,” he said.

“Why I go there is because it was a step forward for me because they were in the second division and I was in the third division and they go into Ligue 1 often.

“I knew it was a good club and for me it was a good opportunity to improve and maybe go to the first division, and that happened. I did one season in the second division, we were promoted, and it was a very good moment.”

And the journey to England ensued. His ability to intercept plays and hold possession with such authority is what made him an attraction to the EPL.

Looking on, how Chelsea performs on the bigger stage with the UEFA Champions League in the basket come next season, will leave an anticipated sight of what Kante can bring to the table against the best of the best in Europe.

For now, the newly crowned Premier League Player of the Year at the 2017 London Football Awards is surely one of this season’s best transfers. Chelsea is definitely in a celebratory dance for winning the French midfielder’s signature.

Even Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho cannot comprehend the failure to sign him. Imagine a Pogba-Herrera-Kante combination. Talk about a clinical midfield.

Either way, Kante has the making of a legend, future of a force and the performance of a star.

“Character is very important and you can find out a lot about players when you are watching them on the pitch,” former Leicester City scout responsible for Kante’s move to England told Everton’s official site.



Featured photo: Two sides of Kante (Getty Images)

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