London – There are some things in sport that you’re just not allowed to say, lines that must not be crossed. For a long time it was more or less impossible to say in public that you thought Paul Scholes was simply a very good footballer, as opposed to a chasteningly complete distillation of perfection and a one-man anti-glam debunking of the Premier League star system. You might think this. But saying it out loud is still technically an offence under the Scholes Act 2009, punishable by being stabbed in the eye with a skewer by the Queen.
As Chelsea romp away on their pre-title victory lap, all that’s really left to happen in the Premier League is for the last top-four spot to be claimed, the relegation places to shuffle down and, of course, for N’Golo Kanté to win player of the year.
The general view on this is pretty clear. Kanté should obviously win it. This has become so ingrained by now that even suggesting otherwise is pretty much a deliberate act of provocation. Only an attention-seeking fool would suggest that at the moment everyone swears by Kanté, that it’s fashionable among pundits who all think he’s the best midfielder in the world, but actually that’s not the case. Or as Joey Barton put it this week: “At the moment everyone swears by N’Golo Kanté. It’s fashionable. For pundits, he’s the best midfielder in the world. That’s not the case.”
But wait! In many ways Barton is right. The cult of Kanté, the obsession with his undoubted excellence in his role, has become a kind of cliché in itself, an orthodoxy based not just on how well he has played but in other supporting agendas, even a kind of vanity.
None of this has anything to do with Kanté, of course, who is remarkably effective in the Premier League, where his main effect is to improve the performance of pretty much every other player on his team. What strikes you, as ever, is that gift of prescience, the constantly refreshing chart of angles and possibilities he carries around in his head, like a man playing with the benefit of a three-second radio delay, while everyone else is crashing about in real time.
Kanté is like a targeted footballing virus, his role to infiltrate, clog and degrade the working parts of an opposition. I remember watching Kanté last year and being convinced he reads the way players run, the way they turn their bodies, such is his ability to snaffle into the right space, utterly certain of the flickering picture in his head, like a fire engine always heading to the right fire.
It is not hard to see the appeal. The Premier League can be crass and gaudy and messy. To declare a love of Kanté, who is also patently a fine man and generous team-mate, is to suggest, or at least to crave, something more rarified, nicer, more honorable. Just as to fail to appreciate fully the beauty of Kanté’s excellent running around and blocking is presumably to misunderstand football.
Albeit this is something of a false position given Kanté is himself the most visible person on the pitch in every game, a player who dominates the tackle charts and the interception rosters, whose running around is almost a form of showboating, of athletic display in itself. There is sense in the public championing of Kanté of willed, misguided hipsterism, like announcing that, no, popular music is simply too crass, you prefer the more complex hidden emotional palette of obscure modern jazz, before triumphantly sticking on your favorite Michael Bublé CD.
There is a tribal element to this too. With relentless monotony, Kanté has been used as stick with which to beat Paul Pogba, an ongoing algebrized sneer that states that while Pogba cost X more, he has achieved Y less and performed Z fewer of N and P, without at any stage acknowledging that these are simply different players in different roles at different clubs in different states of well-being. But then Kanté is now a kind of currency unit in every deal, the ultimate judge of worth, and of a million false comparisons. Raheem Sterling, for example, cost a Kanté and a half. The controversial garden bridge across the river Thames will cost two Kantés. Get a grip, Sadiq Khan!
So who should win it then? The answer is, of course, Eden Hazard, who is the most captivating, talented, high‑end attacking midfield player in the league. The fact is, there is a reason why we tend to celebrate attacking players. Never mind the satisfying effects of seeing a man repeatedly and productively get in the way of the opposition. This is really what football is for as a spectator sport, to inspire and excite and celebrate the most vivid moments of athleticism and skill.
Hazard has done this brilliantly, playing a different way this year, with more elan, more expressive freedom, looking in the process like the kind of mesmerizing, expressive, forward-gear attacking maestro that might appeal to the only kind of clubs that could afford him.
The Premier League has been notably concussive, even quite wild, so many games marked by bruising collision and ever more physical, hard-pressing teams. It is little wonder Kanté should stand out as the most valuable, or at least most visible, player in the middle of this. But Hazard is also on the same pitch, a creative player also asked to ride the buffeting, the collisions, to still affect the game. It looks as though that move to Real Madrid may actually be on this summer. It would be a victory for the historic trend of these gongs, but fitting too, if he could leave as the league’s most celebrated player.