N’Golo Kante: How can Premier League clubs create next star?
Listen to Creating N’Golo Kante on Wednesday, 29 March at 19:30 BST on BBC Radio 5 live
He may be just 5ft 6½in, but N’Golo Kante is a giant of the Premier League.
He is also the best midfielder in the world right now, according to Chelsea and England great Frank Lampard.
Kante was instrumental in Leicester’s astonishing Premier League triumph last year and has been so effective for Chelsea this season that Eden Hazard said lining up alongside him was like “playing with twins”.
Since signing Kante in July, the west London club have gone from a mid-table finish to 10 points clear at the top. Without him, Leicester are six points off the relegation zone having sacked title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri.
The 25-year-old France midfielder is energetic, adept at stopping the opposition, and arguably the most important player in the Premier League. He is also hot favourite to win numerous end-of-season awards.
But what shaped him? What makes him so good? And are Premier League academies trying to to produce the Kantes of the future?
‘He went to training on his push scooter’
Kante was 24 when Steve Walsh brought him to England for £5.6m in the summer of 2015.
By that stage he had spent a decade at JS Suresnes in Paris, had two seasons in the French lower leagues for Boulogne and another two years at Caen, winning promotion to Ligue 1.
By the time Kante was helping Caen consolidate their top-flight status in what would be his final season in France, Walsh had seen enough.
Now the director of football at Everton, he had a similar role at Leicester and by 2015 was in the midst of a long campaign to persuade Ranieri to sign Kante.
Ranieri wasn’t so sure – he wondered if Kante lacked the size needed for the rigours of the Premier League – but every time Walsh walked past the Italian in the corridor at the club’s Belvoir Drive training ground, he would whisper “Kante, Kante”.
The battle for recognition, the need to persuade others of what he has to offer, is nothing new to Kante. In fact, it probably defined his formative years.
Nobody at JS Suresnes – a modest club on the western outskirts of Paris, not far from the Parc des Princes – seems exactly sure of when the tiny kid first appeared, whether it was 1999 or 2000.
He turned up on his own one day – indeed nobody at the club remembers seeing his parents in the decade he played for them.
His parents had come from Mali in 1980 and Kante grew up in a small flat the district of Rueil-Malmaison, close to where Suresnes play. Kante’s sister is in the youth system at the club.
Kante was as quiet and unassuming on that day as every other throughout his time there – but there was something about him. Piotr Wojtyna coached him for years and the Pole was always impressed by both his athleticism and ability to learn.
“He was very receptive to coaching – with tactical information or positioning, where to be on the field,” Wojtyna told BBC Sport.
“He always listened very carefully and the decisions he made on the pitch were very intelligent. I always put him with the weakest kids because his efforts counted for double.”
Former Everton defender Sylvain Distin and Nottingham Forest winger Armand Traore also played for Suresnes, but neither were there anywhere near as long as Kante.
There is a feeling around Paris that Suresnes is a club that has its most talented players pinched by others – but not where Kante is concerned.
Suresnes is close to PSG, but they missed him. So did Rennes, Lorient and Sochaux. The French national academy at Clairefontaine wasn’t interested either.
Suresnes’ deputy manager Pierre Ville thinks he knows why. “It was because he was a little guy, not spectacular. He did not play for himself, he played for the team,” he said.
Photos from his time there show so clearly just how small he was, but eventually he got a move to struggling second-tier club Boulogne, 160 miles from Paris on the northern French coast. He initially joined the reserve team, the move apparently helped by Suresnes’ president having a good contact at Boulogne, but at last, here was his chance.
When he arrived, he became a team-mate of current Brentford defender Maxime Colin, deputising for him at right-back. He started out in the reserve side and by the time he made his first-team breakthrough he was playing in midfield and his team had been relegated to the third tier of French football.
But, by then, Colin had seen enough to know the club had signed someone special.
“One day we did a running test. You needed to run at your maximum and it was him who killed the test,” Colin told BBC Sport. “He kept running after everyone had stopped, going around the track.
“Month after month, people started to see that N’Golo was a really good player.
“I remember seeing him going to the supermarket in France with his little bag and his push scooter – he wants to do everything himself. Boulogne was very hilly but he would turn up to training on his scooter. If you offer him a lift, most of the time he says ‘no I will go by myself’. That’s why he is so strong mentally, he came from really low and did all this by himself.”
Perhaps wisely, Kante eventually bought himself a car but he remains unchanged. Uninterested in displaying his wealth, he now drives a Mini to training at Chelsea.
Kante says his time at Boulogne gave him the belief he could make it as a professional footballer – and when he left for Caen in 2013, he was about to take another significant step on his journey.
He played in all 38 games as they won promotion to the top flight. The following year he was a mainstay of the side that consolidated their position in Ligue 1. That season, he won the ball back more than any other player in Europe.
Walsh was about to start the process of persuading Ranieri to sign him. Kante eventually joined Leicester on the same day Crystal Palace paid a reported £7m for striker Connor Wickham.
‘It was like being ambushed’
He has been called a “machine” and a “mighty mouse”, and described as your worst nightmare.
The stats speak for themselves. Since he arrived in the Premier League, he has made more tackles and interceptions than any other player. Only five players have covered more distance than Kante in the English top flight since his debut.
He doesn’t seem to get injured. For a player of his position he picks up few yellow cards and has not been sent off since arriving in England.
|All about Kante|
|Height: 5ft 6½in|
|Club career: Boulogne (2011-13), Caen (2013-15), Leicester (2015-16), Chelsea (2016-)|
|Honours: 2015-16 Premier League title|
Against Swansea in late February, a 24-second clip of Kante was widely shared – it showed him initially losing the ball but then making four tackles in quick succession. It succinctly illustrated why he is so highly rated.
Watford captain Troy Deeney speaks eloquently about what it is like to play against Kante, saying: “Whenever we broke on them last season, I always had the fear factor that Kante was coming back and I knew we didn’t have much time before he got there.
“Even if I actually did have time, I always thought he might be there, so I would rush things a bit.”
When you interview people about Kante – those who coached him or played alongside him – there are themes that emerge repeatedly.
His ability to cover ground, his positional sense and his humble, quiet but determined personality.
Veteran Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was at Leicester last season and watched him at close quarters. When he first saw the Frenchman, he wondered if he was a footballer because he was “so tiny” but he too was awestruck by Kante’s energy.
“It was second to none,” said Schwarzer. “From the very start, players would be scratching their heads and asking how he does it.
“His positional sense was incredible. He was so incredibly quiet but read the game so well. It was like you were being ambushed.”
Schwarzer says Kante is a player whose talents and ability only truly emerge when you’ve taken the time to watch and study him, as he often did from the substitutes’ bench last season.
But, when training or a match is over, Kante just melts into the background.
Speaking in the tunnel after Chelsea’s recent win at Stoke, a smile appeared on the face of Blues defender Cesar Azpilicueta when he was asked if Kante says much in the dressing room. “No,” was the Spaniard’s eventual answer.
Schwarzer says after Leicester’s crucial victory at Manchester City last season, Kante just sat in the corner as he did after every win, quietly smiling. He was perhaps at his most animated when he played foot golf with team-mate Riyad Mahrez after training.
“He will not change his personality, he is just made like this,” says Colin, who caught up with Kante after their two teams met in the FA Cup in January.
|Making up the ground – most distance covered since August 2015 (Premier League)|
|Craig Dawson – 730.4km|
|Darren Fletcher 723.1km|
|Christian Eriksen 718.4km|
|Gylfi Sigurdsson 705.1km|
|N’Golo Kante 701.8km|
BBC pundit Phil Neville believes Kante “is the one who has knitted this Chelsea team together”.
“I thought he was a number six like former Chelsea player Claude Makelele. But he is a number six, an eight and a 10 – he plays absolutely everywhere, three different positions,” he said.
“I played with one of the greatest at Manchester United in Roy Keane. He got the ball off the back four, played passes, joined up with the frontman, and I think Kante is the most complete midfielder in the Premier League at the moment.”
‘He’s not a creator’
Kante’s story is as refreshing as it is incredible. The small and modest man from an immigrant background who showed the persistence and determination to reach the top, but whose feet remain firmly on the ground.
But not everyone is convinced.
Burnley midfielder Joey Barton – who had a season on loan at Marseille when Kante was still at Boulogne – recently told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche: “At the moment, everyone swears by N’Golo Kante. It’s fashionable.
“For pundits, he’s the best midfielder in the world. That’s not the case – he’s very good, but I played against him three weeks ago.
“He’s a phenomenal destroyer who played in a phenomenal team, but he’s not a creator. And it’s impossible to be so definitive with a player who has not played in the Champions League.”
Neville agrees the question about the Champions League is valid.
“We saw he could compete in international football at Euro 2016 but I think the Champions League is a higher level,” he said. “Can he do it Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday for 50-60 games a season?
“And can he develop technically so when teams try to leave him on the ball and challenge him to pass and dictate a game, he has the answers?”
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte knows Kante can be improved.
“We are working on some aspects to try to improve him, to make him a more complete player,” said the Italian.
“In the pass, yes. I think he has a lot of room to improve in the pass, and to look to make his first pass a forward pass. He can improve on these aspects, definitely.”
Maybe we saw evidence of this in the recent FA Cup tie against Manchester United. Kante scored the only goal but it was his all-round performance that really caught the eye; he showed a willingness to push forward and was as much an attacking force as defensive shield.
The doubts about his ability to produce such consistently high-energy performances when he has to play twice a week will not be answered until we see Chelsea in the Champions League next season.
‘They all want to be Messi’ – Are clubs missing the next Kante?
The day after Barcelona thrashed Paris St-Germain 6-1 in early March to pull off one of the most stunning comebacks in football history, Stoke academy director Gareth Jennings was struggling to get his point across.
Stoke had earned a superb point with a goalless draw at Manchester City on the same night Barca were running riot.
“We spoke to our boys and we were talking about Stoke and how they performed against Manchester City,” Jennings told BBC Sport.
“A few of them were saying ‘Yes, but did you see Barcelona?’ They talk about Lionel Messi and Neymar and Luis Suarez but we want them to recognise some of the other qualities in the game as well.”
Jennings is well placed to talk about the value of producing players such as Kante – he was academy director at Leicester last year before moving to Stoke in the summer.
“I went to a game last year at Bournemouth, so it was quite early in Kante’s Leicester career, and I almost thought he played them on his own,” said Jennings.
“He has a real discipline about him. He understands his role and what that contribution is going to be. If you are building a development programme to get the best players through your academy system, you need to make sure you are recognising those qualities, other than the ones who are technically gifted.
“I suppose the big danger is, do you miss them because you are looking for the outstanding technical player?”
Liverpool academy director Alex Inglethorpe breaks midfielders down into three categories – destroyers, energisers and magicians. Kante is certainly a destroyer and seems to fit into the middle category as well.
Inglethorpe – who managed Exeter and took a youth role at Spurs before joining Liverpool in 2012 – believes that for the academy system to work they must be able to spot and develop all three types.
Jennings agrees – arguing for this to work it is crucial clubs value all three categories.
“Talent identification is a really difficult position,” added Jennings. “But there are highly skilled people out there.
“We need to make sure we are focused on all kinds of attributes. We like to talk about the world’s best players and Kante and players like him need to be added to that list.”
But there are questions about whether academies miss out on players like Kante because of their height – certainly, it put clubs off when he was growing up in Paris – and whether there is enough competitive football at youth level where results really matter to hone competitive, box-to-box players.
Kante came from a low base where he constantly had to impress, to overcome those who doubted him. He made the first-team breakthrough at lower-league level.
Midfielders in the academy system play in a series of leagues formed after the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan designed to overhaul and improve youth football.
One academy boss I spoke to wondered whether there were enough games where results mattered, where players learned how to win. In short, whether it prepared players like Kante for the real world.
Academies should ensure the preparation is appropriate, because Kante is obviously incredibly valuable.
Schwarzer says Kante was a bargain at £32m and Chelsea might struggle to keep hold of him.
Neville believes more clubs will want players like Kante – athletic, intelligent and capable of playing all over the midfield. “He will redefine what we are looking for from a midfield player,” he said.
Right now, creating Kante seems more important than ever.
Additional reporting by BBC World Service’s John Bennett.