“2/3 of the earth is covered by water, Kanté covers the rest.”
The phrase above has been used in many forms and in many languages over the last 3 years and seems to be the most succinct and accurate synopsis of the player himself. N’Golo Kanté is and has been everywhere when it comes to a football pitch. He certainly has risen in meteoric fashion as just 4 years ago he was playing in Ligue 2 of France and now he stands today as a back to back Premier League Champion with 17 caps for the French National team. He also has a Premier League Player of the Season and a PFA Players’ Player of the Year award to boot. Not too bad for a 5 foot 6 inch central midfielder.
So what exactly makes this player so special? The answer is really quite straightforward: he wins the ball A LOT! Now, as simplistic as that is, he also excels in other areas of the game and contributes to his team in a comprehensive way. However, at the end of the day, he is where he is today not because of his passing or creation or leadership, but because he covers more ground and wins more tackles than most any player in all of Europe. The season before arriving at Leicester, with Caen, he had won the ball back more than any player in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Kanté then finished his first season in England ranking 1st in interceptions (156) and 1st in tackles (175). He then moved to Chelsea and finished his first season with them by ranking 2nd amongst midfielder interceptions with 82 and second amongst the entire league with 127 tackles. That is what you call a rise to prominence. At this point, with 2 league titles in his locker and a firm place in the French National team, he can be considered a world class player in his position.
A lot of times it is the tackles and challenges that get all the plaudits and adulation from fans and viewers alike. They are, indeed, a bit sexier and more eye-catching than basic interceptions. However, I do not want this quality to go underrated or missed. They are anything but basic. N’Golo Kanté’s ability to average 3.3 interceptions over his first 72 Premier League games is incredible. No one comes near him in this regard. This quality speaks not to his strength or combativeness, but his intelligence and ability to read play as it unfolds in front of him. The artistry and interpretation it takes to master this skill is far more advanced than simplistic kicking and running.
Kanté is a teammate’s best friend, no doubt. He is seemingly everywhere at once and always provides that additional defensive help. Not only is he incredibly successful in 1v1 tackles and interceptions, but he also has a stunning knack for ghosting in on an opponent’s blind side and pinching the ball right off him like a thief in the night. What’s more, he does this without going to ground and rarely fouling. As a player with such high defensive demands and such high tackle numbers, his fouls per game is relatively low at 1.5 and he only picked up 9 yellow cards in 35 games last season. He finds ways to use his low center of gravity and quick first step to gain an angle on the ball and seems to consistently come out of duels with the ball and on his feet, allowing the team’s transition to be more fluid and dangerous.
A defensive midfielder in the mold of N’Golo Kanté is not required or asked to be a creator or playmaker. No, his role is mainly that of defensive execution and positional security. Break up play and win the ball, then give it to someone else. Straightforward, but nonetheless, essential. More often than not he acts as a link man, moving the ball out of pressure and connecting the dots. Kanté ranked 6th in the league last year with 2,122 passes completed. He keeps play in front of him and moves the ball into areas where more creative and penetrative players are located. He is always an option to recirculate and helps maintain a high speed of play. A vital role that is critical to the team’s functional success.
Breaking the First Line of Pressure
An undervalued yet key quality that Kanté also possesses is his ability to beat the first line of pressure with his passing. Now that’s not to say he racks up the key passes or assists (just 1 last year) but it does speak to the fact that his passing is not the stereotypical east west that many holding midfielders are labeled with. He has the technical competency and tactical vision to receive out of pressure and move the ball forward with his passing. He passed at a success rate of 89% last year with 67% being forward passes. Kanté’s ball movement allows for an increased attacking tempo and makes Chelsea less predictable, and thus harder to forecast defensively. This attribute may not be what the Chelsea #7 is known for, but it is certainly a skill that provides a key foundational element to the team’s offensive execution.
Eden Hazard seemed to put it best when he said of Kanté, “Sometimes when I’m on the pitch, I see him twice. One on the left, one on the right. I think I’m playing with twins!” We may not be in an age where the defensive midfielders of the world garner as much attention and praise as the goal scorers or goal makers, but if that mindset ever changes, it would certainly have something to do with N’Golo Kanté. This is a player that gives his manager and teammates everything and then some. An impact player, no questions asked.