By modern day standards he is not gifted with what many would consider exceptional “athletic” ability, size or strength. His engine is otherworldly, most likely down to part genes and part work. You probably don’t even know what this man sounds like because you’ve never heard him speak. Nonetheless N’Golo Kanté’s rise to the pinnacle of soccer has been nothing short of extraordinary. But the brilliance about him is that almost nothing he does in and of itself would be considered extraordinary. In fact it is the simplicity to his game that makes him so effective in every team he plays. To summarize his career thus far, he went from not being picked by a French academy to pursuing a vocational diploma in accounting while still working to become a professional soccer player (A feat he didn’t accomplish until he made his debut at 21). Working his way to playing in the France's Ligue 1. Winning two Premier League titles with two different teams. And most recently, winning the World Cup. To put his trajectory in perspective, based on information from Transfermarkt, his value when he made his debut in 2013 for Boulogne was a mere €50,000. As of July 16, 2018 his value is €$80 million. Kanté’s rise is more like a startup company in an industry where assets like himself just didn’t exist, or aren't nearly as effective.
Since his professional debut he has been racking up unprecedented individual awards to go along with team honors. These include being voted the 2016/17 Premier League Player of The Year as well as Player of The Year for both Leicester and Chelsea in 2016 and 2017 respectively, FIFA FIFPro World XI in 2016 and 2017, French Player of The Year in 2017 and a finalist for the highly coveted Ballon d’Or in 2017. This is just to name a few. As I mentioned, he also won the Premier League in back to back seasons with two different clubs and most recently lifted the most elusive trophy in sports, the World Cup. All the while Kanté’s game has remained the definition of simplicity, consistency and effectiveness. He’s won these individual and team awards while utilizing the attributes, that more than anything, HE controls. That’s whats so refreshing. The fact that for the most part his game is structured around skills that everyone has at a base level. He has just worked to elevate his to another stratosphere. This, to me, is much more replicable than aiming to be the next Pogba or Messi or Ronaldo. Not to diminish enthusiasm of young players but it’s still about being realistic. Kanté is realistic. At only 5’5’’ he has proven that the most effective player on the field can still be one who works harder than everyone, covers more ground, plays simply and reads the game brilliantly. Anyone who pays close attention could see that not only was Kanté arguably the most important member of France’s title winning squad, he was maybe the best player of the tournament. The fact that his game is structured upon work-rate, determination, competitiveness, fitness level, simplicity and reading plays makes his performances all the more impressive.
It’s impossible to say why exactly he wasn’t picked for any academy in France, but it most likely comes down to the physical attributes he had no control over. This isn’t the first, or last, occasion of a player being looked over due to these reasons but in Kanté it leads to the other part of his story. Unlike many stories we hear of players going from zero to sixty, Kanté’s rise to stardom contains aspects that many young, ambitions players are in fact able to relate to and replicate. Although what he does is viewed as spectacularly important, his game is one that is quite simple at it’s essence. First he relies on work-rate (In seven World Cup matches he ran a ridiculous 42.5 miles) and reading the game. Not only does this allow him to be extremely effective in any system he plays, they are both qualities that any player can build into their game. Work-rate and fitness level are self explanatory. Some players are gifted with a better starting point but regardless of where they start, everyone can dramatically improve with work and desire. Those are things that, outside of being injured, the player has complete control over. For anyone with professional ambition it must be the foundation their game is built upon. Reading the game is really where Kanté excels. In the World Cup he managed 61 ball recoveries. Here is some perspective. In their first two group matches he had 27 ball recoveries. In the 2014 season Paul Pogba had 28. The entire year! This may be something that comes naturally to certain players while others find it more challenging. With modern technology we have the ability to work on training our minds to see things we may not have seen while on the field but can then watch and apply in the future. Watching film, working with coaches and a true commitment to learning will undoubtedly help players improve in their reading of the game.
Kanté’s quiet confidence is also a beautiful thing to see. This, coupled with his competitive nature creates astounding results. His performances dealing with some of the best players in the world in the likes of Messi and Hazard we're truly remarkable. I don’t know exactly where this confidence comes from, but I would guess that it has a lot to do with the path he took to get where he currently is. Every notch on the proverbial professional belt that he was able to achieve must have helped him in this area, because each level was a struggle for him in some way. A lot of young players in America don’t have to deal with this struggle, or difficulty, and so many bail out or make it someone else’s fault. Kanté is a shining example of what happens when you push through the difficult times. A resiliency and self belief are formed that don’t come from taking the easy path.
Now, his passing.I understand that generally speaking the position Kanté plays asks little of the player in terms of his ability to create plays going forward. But what it asks a lot of is the ability for a player to play simply and consistently. He may not stand out here but during the world cup he completed 324 passes out of 365 attempted. Almost 90% pass completion rate, again, effectiveness, simplicity and consistency. I feel that often times current young players in this country want to replicate aspects of players games that are so special that they forget to lay the foundation first. Be creative. Learn different moves on the dribble or find unique ways to pass and score. But take a page out of this man’s book and find the beauty in doing the simple things first.
To top it off, his humility and down-to-earth mentality make him absolutely beloved by teammates for both club and country. A good message to send players and a fantastic example of how the most unassuming player can become the most important.
This is a bit on Kanté but also my love of every intangible he brings to the pitch and how THOSE are the aspects of a professional player that our youth players should in fact look to mirror.
For even more reading on Kanté, here are a few articles worth your time.