London – The most misleading scene of this season came in late September, 40 minutes into Arsenal’s 3-0 destruction of Chelsea at the Emirates. Mesut Özil, facing his own goal about 10 yards outside Arsenal’s penalty area, sensed N’Golo Kanté bearing down on him and deftly rolled the would-be ambusher before galloping forward.
As he approached the Chelsea area, the German exchanged passes with Alexis Sánchez before sending a bobbly volley into the net from 12 yards. Kanté had tried to keep pace with Özil but ran as if towing a ship. Even the referee, Michael Oliver, overtook the Frenchman. Something was badly wrong.
Fast-forward seven and a half months and that all seems like a false memory. Arsenal are sputtering glumly in Chelsea’s wake, Özil is again accused of diffidence and Kanté is hailed as the Premier League’s most dynamic performer, voted the Player’s Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year. He has become the first outfield player since Eric Cantona to win back‑to-back top-flight titles in England with two different clubs (the goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer also achieved that feat with Chelsea and Leicester City but was a reserve who seldom played for either).
In many respects the two Frenchmen, Kanté and Cantona, could not be more different. The latter was a flamboyant artist whose greatest work came when he found a way to marry his team’s need to conquer with his own instinct to subvert and be vindicated. His blend of precision, flair, composure and volatility requiring careful handling.
Kanté plays with no swagger and almost without an ego. He is so self-effacing in the dressing room that team-mates say they sometimes do not even notice him. But everyone notices the 26-year-old on the pitch. He is impossible to miss because he is everywhere, harassing opponents, piecing together moves and covering more ground than Google maps. He did so much work for Leicester last season that Claudio Ranieri said they lost two players in the summer when Chelsea bought him for £32m. Leicester fans used to refer to him as “the Kanté twins”.
The embarrassment at the hands of Arsenal was a turning point in Chelsea’s season because it forced Antonio Conte to make changes that, among other benefits, enabled Kanté’s influence to grow. Before that the raggedness of Chelsea’s defence, especially the slowness of their right-back, Branislav Ivanovic, imposed demands for coverage that were excessive even for Kanté.
He had been able to make a 4-4-2 system work for Leicester when outnumbered in midfield because they, at least, had a rigid defence. Chelsea’s shift to using three centre-backs and a pair of mobile wing-backs allowed Kanté to concentrate his massive efforts sensibly. Sensible for him, that is; most other players do not have the vim and intelligence to dominate as he does.
It is rare in the Premier League that a player is so much better than his peers at a particular aspect of the game that he resembles an adult playing in an under-age tournament. Yaya Touré could give that impression in his prime, swotting away opponents as if they were Lilliputians as he marauded forward from midfield. There are speedsters such as Jamie Vardy who can leave defenders spinning helplessly.
But no one other than Kanté sets opponents aquiver just by his relentless capacity to dispossess them and be where they mean to be and do what they want to do. He does not merely overrun them, he squats their minds. Many must have felt as if they had no choice but to vote for him as Player of the Year. That is a brilliant achievement for a man who was not schooled in any academy, having been rejected by several in France before turning professional with Caen at the age of 22.
Kanté’s departure from Leicester was the key transfer of last summer, being integral to the champions’ collapse and Chelsea’s renaissance and the player has evolved since his move. Because Chelsea tend to have much more possession than Leicester did, Kanté has not needed to tackle so much this season (but has still done so more than anyone else except for Everton’s Idrissa Gueye) or make as many interceptions (he has made half as many as he did last season, although he is still in the top five in the Premier League for that, too).
He has, on the other hand, made far more passes, not simply to deliver the ball to more creative team-mates in the way that Claude Makelele used to at Stamford Bridge, but also to undo defences himself. His beautifully executed pass to Pedro in the buildup to Chelsea’s third goal in January’s 3-0 win at Leicester demonstrated the evolution neatly.
There is still scope for Kanté to improve. Conte says his passing can be honed further and he could develop more composure in the box, his jagged thrust and finish against Manchester United in October being his only league goal of the campaign.
Most of all, he needs to show he can maintain his influence while competing in Europe as well as domestically. Playing in the Champions League is a privilege that he is yet to enjoy, a test that he is yet to endure.
Next season will be the most challenging of Kanté’s career. He has risen to every one he has faced so far. Another title is certainly not out of the question for the Premier League’s Mr Relentless.
The Guardian Sport