Remember the N’Golo Kanté riots of 2018? Those were high times, man. It seems strange now but this time last year one of the key issues in the Premier League’s endless conversation with itself, and a source of febrile ambient rage well beyond the Chelsea fanbase, was the apparent misuse of Kanté by overseas book-learning type Maurizio Sarri.
The spark in this tinderbox was the decision to play Jorginho as the deeper of Chelsea’s midfield pairing. As part of this shift Kanté was moved a few yards from his previous starting position. He was encouraged to make a number of additional forward runs. Cue: outrage.
It was a strangely protective fury. On radio shows, in newspaper columns, on the swirling brain-thoughts of social media, the angry talking heads leapt up. There was a sense of gallantry, defending Kanté’s honour, like pipe‑smoking 1950s fathers shooing a motorbike gang from the front porch while their teenage daughter cowers at the screen door. Nobody puts N’Golo in the corner!
And yet the strangest thing about the Kanté uprising was: it wasn’t really a thing. Sarri went on to all but destroy Chelsea by finishing third, winning a European trophy, giving Callum Hudson-Odoi 26 games and behaving with discrete good grace while being yelled at by Spam-faced men with weirdly overwrought opinions on the precise calibration of the two-man midfield pivot.
Kanté and Jorginho, intelligent footballers, made it work well enough. Fast forward a year and Chelsea’s two best wins of the season, away at Lille and Southampton, have coincided with their resumption of a two-man midfield. The news that Kanté will probably miss Saturday’s game against Newcastle after twanging his hamstring with France looks the biggest obstacle to a resumption of their recent surge.
Plus, there has been some other news this week. Real Madrid and Juventus have let it be known, through the usual channels, that they may just be coming for Kanté. Not that anyone really believes these stories, product of what the authors of The Club, a brilliantly detailed anatomy of Premier League shenanigans, describe as “the gossip-industrial complex”.
There are obvious holes in the Kanté to Madrid yarn. First Chelsea aren’t selling anyone and secondly the article on the DesMarque website states that Kanté “dreams of wearing white and leaving Chelsea. He believes they do not aspire to winning important titles with Frank Lampard”.
Yeah, right. Does this sound like the N’Golo that you know? What were his exact words? He didn’t like the deal – but he has to go along with it?
It is at least no surprise to hear that Kanté should be in demand. He has been lionised in England, adopted as a Premier League force of nature. Albeit there has always been something showy about some of the excitement, a sense of overcompensation.
The covering midfielder, the anchor, is not a position English football has historically prized. In Kanté we got it, a defensive shield of such energy, with such a flatteringly concussive Premier League style that it became a badge of sophistication to praise him and a possible source of that backlash when a gangly foreign manager who looks as though he’s stepped out to the all-night garage in search of a tin of slim panatellas tried to change him, to bring other layers out of a champion footballer.
It is fair to ask why bother. Kanté is seriously good at this. He made the most tackles in Europe’s top leagues two seasons in a row. Last season, in a team that had the ball most of the time, he still blocked more passes per game than any other regular Premier League midfielder.
This is his superpower, the ability to take an advanced eye for space and movement, the famous picture a creative player has in their head, and to use that three-second glimpse forward into the revolving angles, the shifting pieces not to create, but to destroy and staunch and intercept.
Still, Kanté has been doing other things. As long ago as last year’s Champions League defeat by Barcelona at the Camp Nou he produced a brilliantly complete all‑round midfield display against Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta.
He has played three league games this year but nobody has scored so many goals while also making so many tackles in that time. The pet destroyer is the best all-round midfielder in the Premier League.
And why not? The image of Kanté has always been circumscribed. The story about him working as a rubbish picker in the Paris suburbs as a child feeds into this notion of some humble, saintly automaton. But Kanté is also a qualified accountant. When he refused to take his Chelsea wages through a shell company perhaps it wasn’t because he’s a holy soul looking beyond the material plane, but because he understands financial regulation and accounting practices better than most.
Similarly, the idea of Kanté as a servant to the stars seems restrictive. We hear that he “let Paul Pogba play” at the World Cup, that his yeoman presence liberates others. Maybe what’s happening here is that they’re watching Kanté play, a footballer who, in four years, has won four major club trophies and a World Cup medal for three teams, each one transformed by his presence.
Probably we should try to enjoy him while we can, starting with Ajax on Tuesday; our own preciously guarded midfield shield, who – whisper it quietly – has become a little more than simply that.
The Guardian Sport