Tning of Kante’s story, It was Friday, February 27, 2015. In the bars and cafes flanking the historic Vieux Port, Marseille fans sipping their morning coffee learned of their club’s interest in Caen midfielder N’Golo Kante in local paper La Provence.
As fate would have it, Kante was to play against Marseille at their Stade Velodrome that very evening. It was the perfect chance for his prospective future employers, and their army of fans, to size him up.
The Marseille midfield boasted the talents of Dimitri Payet, Andre Ayew and Giannelli Imbula. The 24-year-old Kante wiped the floor with them.
Noticing Marseille’s tendency to leave Imbula isolated with the ball as he built play from the back, Caen manager Patrice Garande set Kante loose on the callow midfielder, blocking off his passing options and sucking the oxygen from the air around him. Marseille went 2-0 up, but Caen fought back. Kante created the equaliser for Emiliano Sala and was involved in the build-up to Nicolas Benezet’s 87th-minute winner.
“He ate the entire Marseille midfield on his own. He destroyed them,” Guillaume Laine, a journalist for Ouest-France who followed Kante’s time at Caen, tells Bleacher Report. “A monster,” was L’Equipe‘s verdict. “He strolled between Marseille’s lines like a fish through water.”
Kante was unaccustomed to the attention he received that night. Journalists he had never met greeted him by name. In the mixed zone, in his deep, sonorous voice, he bashfully played down talk of Marseille’s interest. But the experience of playing beneath the spectacularly sinuous Velodrome roof would remain in his mind. By the time Marseille came calling in the summer, Kante had set his heart on joining them.
Marseille manager Marcelo Bielsa saw in Kante a player who could infuse his midfield with the relentless forward drive he demands. Bielsa’s plan was to pair him with Idrissa Gueye, then at Lille. Kante made more successful tackles (176) and interceptions (106) than any other midfielder in Ligue 1 in 2014-15. Gueye ranked sixth for tackles and third for interceptions. As a partnership, with more creative players around them, they would have been terrifying.
But while Marseille had invested significantly in new players during the two previous summer transfer windows, the emphasis as the 2015 market opened was on prudence. They could only offer a €5 million-plus bonus for Kante, which Leicester City. comfortably trumped with a bid of around €8 million. Kante was left with no option but the East Midlands. Gueye wound up down the road at Aston Villa.
Now, The 27-year-old has developed a reputation as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world having won the Premier League with Leicester in 2016 and Chelsea a year later. Even though the Blues struggled this term, Kante still maintained his high standards and has become a transfer target for Paris Saint-Germain.
France kick off their World Cup campaign against Australia today and Leboeuf said: “If N’Golo is in top form, we might be able to cause a surprise and win the World Cup again.
“I hope that they do that and I wish for him that he does that because he deserves credit for the way he works.
“I am a huge admirer of N’Golo. Nobody can hate that guy. You will always love that guy, even if he scores against you. He is always smiling, always nice.
“He is a shy guy with a real talent and knows how to think about football. He anticipates a lot, is very clever and is a tough guy at the same time.
“Now Didier Deschamps has to put him in the middle of the national team because he became one of the main players for France and he’s done so without talking, just doing.”
By the time of Manchester UTD’s visit in late November 2015, Ranieri had discovered the team that would win the title, Kante anchoring the midfield alongside Danny Drinkwater. As Walsh was fond of quipping, “We always play three in midfield—Drinkwater in the middle, and Kante either side.”
The milestones have been flashing by ever since. March 2016: France debut and first international goal. May 2016: Premier League champion. July 2016: star signing for Chelsea, at a cost of £32 million. He has just been voted England’s PFA Players’ Player of the Season. Another Premier League title beckons and with it the promise of a first taste of Champions League football.
N’Golo Kante is that engine. He is the perfect team player. Whatever side he is in is instantly served by his energy and tenacity. And on a team that supports the whole, he is perfect. But he often finds himself on teams of individuals that are strengthened by him, but who are stopped from succeeding fully because of their individualism.