Amid the drama of 2016, one man only needed to let his football do the talking.
In the 1990s, at the height of Manchester United’s imperial phase in the Premier League, FourFourTwo magazine published an article exploring ways Alex Ferguson’s team could possibly be stopped. As the plots grew increasingly esoteric, one suggested a rival club signing Eric Cantona, noting that the last team who managed to win the league title before Cantona’s Manchester United were Cantona’s Leeds United, in 1992.
Cantona was in fact the first ever player to win back-to-back titles with different clubs and that record stood unsullied until last season when, improbably, Mark Schwarzer did the same. Given he did so without making a single league appearance for Leicester City in 2015-16, and only playing six times for Chelsea in 2014-15, the legitimacy of this achievement is questionable. Not so if a player making the reverse journey, N’Golo Kante, manages a repeat.
Like Cantona, and unlike Schwarzer, Kante has been a driving force for his two clubs. Just as Cantona’s move to United established a new era, Kante’s summer transfer of around £30m was another defining one in English football, closing an era off as the needle swung violently back towards normal. Last season’s biggest underachievers took the most influential player from last season’s biggest overachievers and set about restoring balance in the football universe.
Just as with Cantona 20 years ago, the lesson of 2016 seems to be that if you want to win the Premier League, buying N’Golo Kante is a good place to start.
With him, Leicester climbed to unthinkable peaks as they secured the most astonishing title of all, and without him they have sunk back into the mire at the same time as Kante’s energy has propelled Chelsea back up the table in their place, currently dominating the league with a run of 12 straight victories. Admittedly, Kante did miss the 12th due to suspension, but since the start of last season his impact is clear: without him Chelsea and Leicester have taken 67 points in 56 games, but with him they have 120 in 53.
The year in sport has been one of tumult and change, but for one man it has been an unbroken story of excellence.
If Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy won the big individual awards at the end of a season which saw Leicester crowned champions, discerning observers recognised the essential role Kante played in establishing a platform in midfield; it was his tireless energy and ability to halt opposition advances which became such a vital weapon in launching Leicester’s lightning counter-attacks. He ended the season with the most tackles (175) and interceptions (157) of any player in the division. “In training we’d do a keep-ball box, with eleven of us around the outside and two in the middle,” Vardy wrote in his autobiography, “and I started to think that N’Golo was deliberately giving it away because getting it back was so much fun for him.”
It was this relentless pursuit of the ball and Kante’s ability to generate a heat map which resembled an image of the surface of the sun which gave rise to the seminal description of Kante last season.
Leicester’s head of recruitment, Steve Walsh, who helped bring the little-known midfielder to the club from Caen for a fee of just £5.6m in 2015, boasted: “People think we play with two in the midfield. I say ‘No, we play Drinkwater in the middle with Kante either side.” It was no surprise when one of the first things Walsh did upon joining Everton this summer was to try and sign the player who most closely resembles Kante in the league.
If Kante is ever so slightly less dynamic in Antonio Conte’s formidable 3-4-3, he is no less influential. Conte, who had never even heard of him two years ago, said at the end of October that Kante was “a complete midfielder, not only a defensive midfielder.” It might be stretching the point somewhat – Kante only has two league goals in 50 games for Leicester and Chelsea – but it demonstrated just how much a man who has managed midfielders as diverse as Pirlo and Pogba has been taken by Kante.
As the centrepoint of the two best teams of the calendar year – the Leicester side which rolled relentlessly on to the title last season and the Chelsea team who are looking equally ominous this time around – there can be little doubt that Kante is the Premier League man of the year. Where Mahrez and Vardy have seen their performance levels plummet, Kante has kept on running, intercepting and tackling, enforcing his superiority again and again. His influence has been unmatched.
Like many of the best players, he is also a man of his place and time. His omnipotence on the pitch and high-energy style make him a rather fitting poster boy for the Premier League, which likes to spread its brand of intensity and speed suffocatingly across the globe. But Kante is also an antidote to the age’s worst excesses.
This is a man who still drives a Mini to training and apparently has no interest in self-promotion. A man who only needs to let his football of the past 12 months do the talking. Our man of the year.