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Box to box and back again: An ode to N’Golo

N’Golo Kanté is redefining the role of the modern midfielder

Chelsea v Manchester United - The Emirates FA Cup Quarter-Final
Kante has made the number 7 shirt his own at Chelsea
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

N'Golo Kanté. The 2017 Player of the Year. The Should-have-been 2016 Player of the Year. The player who for two consecutive seasons has taken plaudits away from a shortlist of big-name competitors. Popular for many reasons: playing a lead role in the Leicester City fairytale; transforming an underperforming Chelsea midfield; a mould-breaker; a nice guy. It's easy to see why he attracts admirers from all corners, even those that despise Chelsea.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of Kanté's rise to stardom isn’t his qualities on the pitch — when the Real Madrid rumors hit, you know you’ve made it — but it’s that his qualities are very different from those usually rewarded with individual pageantry.

I will wager that behind their smiles and applause, Premier League suits are the only demographic to hesitate over Kanté's awards. Will he sell shirts? Will he sell TV deals? What does he do for the brand (Best League in the World™)? Their worry at his appointment to the top of the pyramid, as set forth in both the awards from players (PFA) and writers (FWA) this year, makes his ascendancy all the more enjoyable.

Despite the interest from Real, there is no air of 'Galactico' about him. Eden Hazard vowed that if he pipped Kanté to the PFA award, he'd invite him up on stage to share it. In football Hollywood, even the stars can't ignore the facts.

The numbers paint a picture of a tireless worker, a whirlwind of energy and a footballer operating with stunning efficiency. But it’s not just about his 123 tackles or an average of 2.5 interceptions per 90 minutes. It's about the effect his presence has on the team. It’s no coincidence that Leicester City rose from relegation battlers (41 points) to Premier League champions (83 points) only to fall back to mid-table again (43 points currently) once Kanté left to produce a similar effect at Chelsea (50 points to at least 90). While it may be a stretch to credit the turnarounds only to Kanté, his contributions have been undeniable.

The comparisons with footballing legend and former Chelsea midfielder Claude Makélélé began as soon as Kanté signed. A diminutive French anchorman, hoovering up any ball making its way past the midfield playmakers. To achieve anything close to Makélélé would be an achievement in itself. Which makes what Kanté has done in his first two years in England all the more incredible. But his style is different from Makélélé, more dynamic, more multi-faceted, and unlike anything we have seen at such a level. Tenacious, hungry. A never-ending drive. An inexhaustible engine. Faultless, almost robotic execution. Tidy passing. Unexpected flashes of skill. Just watching the Kanté highlights reel is exhausting.

While blessed with a rich history, Chelsea have not, it's fair to say, created the same heritage behind certain shirt numbers as other teams in the league. Take Kanté's number seven shirt: previously held by everyone from Bernard Lambourde to Ray Wilkins, Brian Laudrup to John Spencer. For a child growing up in the ‘80s, this particular shirt was synonymous with stars from Liverpool and Manchester: Best, Kanchelskis, Cantona; Keegan, Dalglish, Beardsley.

But while these stars represented the classic 7, the iconic playmaker, in the early ‘90s, Spencer was winning over the Chelsea support in much the same way that Kanté does today. Spencer, a swashbuckling, pint-sized Glaswegian, was famous for chasing down overhit passes, harrying opponents and fighting for the ball, all in the hope of forging a goalscoring chance from nothing. He was the first player I looked up to — not solely for natural talent, which he did possess (just search YouTube for his wonderful range of goals) — but more for his commitment and hunger. It spoke to the passion of the Chelsea support, which drew me in immediately. In many ways, Kanté is a throwback to those values of old.

Statistical analysis in football has come a long way over the past 10 years, and today’s fan commonly references facts and stats in debate, catching up slowly with American sport’s love affair with numbers. Bookmakers rejoice at the trend — another tool that gives punters confidence in their convictions. Teams are also working the numbers, looking to improve their odds of success. At the top of their lists now are not necessarily the next great goalscorer, but the next Kanté, the next ‘superbreed’ of footballer.

Whereas Makélélé once defined a crucial yet limited role that eventually bore his name, Kanté and the rest of the new generation (e.g. Naby Keïta) are expanding that role into something, which cannot be so easily ignored and underrated even if it’s not defined by flamboyance and flair. It’s sporting prowess at its best. Kanté’s awards are just the start.

West Bromwich Albion v Chelsea - Premier League
Kante gets the bumps during the Champions’ celebrations at West Brom
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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