On the 2nd May 2016, Leicester City were finally crowned champions of England, after Tottenham’s draw with Chelsea. We were treated to footage of the player celebrating at home and the fans outside the stadium all looking like they could not believe it themselves. It was no more than Leicester deserved. They were, over the season, the most consistent team and had achieved one of the greatest sporting achievements in history.
Pundits across the footballing world had written the Foxes off from the early stages, and even when they continued to defy the critics there were still doubts that they could continue getting results and win the League. Even one of their most famous players, Gary Lineker, found it impossible to believe. But, come the end of the season, the impossible had been achieved. Leicester City had been crowned Premier League Champions.
Leicester played a brand of football which would counter attack teams on the break. The difference was, they would counter with pace by moving the ball as quickly as possible up the pitch, relying on the speed of players like Jamie Vardy. It was such an effective tactic and the majority of the teams they played had no answer. Teams knew what was coming in each match yet fell into the trap and Leicester would punish them every time.
There were no house hold names in the team. Jamie Vardy, Robert Huth, Wes Morgan, Kasper Schmeichel, Danny Drinkwater, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante were the previously unknown stars, previously players that would battle against relegation. What the players had was a fantastic team spirit and a team ethic which was second to none. They all worked hard for each other which in the end, comfortably brought home the major prize of League Champions.
Then onto 2016/17 season and big things were expected. The bar had suddenly been raised and fans expected. Bids came in for their players which Leicester rejected. Players were offered improved contracts to sway them to stay. Nearly all stayed. But nearly was not quite enough.
The one player who did leave was N’Golo Kante.
He joined Chelsea in the summer for a fee of around £32 million. At the time people thought it may have been good business for the Foxes. After all, Leicester had only paid £5.6 million for him the year before, plucking him from Caen in the French Ligue 1. It was only three years before his move to the Premier League that Kante had been playing in the French third tier. It was quite a turn around for a player deemed too short to play football at the top level.
But if ever there was a player who was the difference between a team winning a game or a team losing one, it is N’Golo Kante.
Yes, Leicester had Vardy’s goals and a defence that was strong and could close the door on opposition attackers. Mahrez was in fine form and chipped in with some great goals and assists, but it was in the middle of the park where it was all happening.
N’Golo Kante wasn’t going to score goals from 25 yards, he was unlikely to be top of the assists charts, but what he gave Leicester was work rate and getting them the ball back. His stamina to get up and down the pitch, winning the ball in all areas, was something that was invaluable and something that made him an object of desire to other clubs.
For Leicester, he would sit in front of the back four and sweep up all that’s in front of him. He would close down players, he would close any gaps and he did not stop working from the first whistle to the very last, victorious shrill of the title winning season.
Kante was the heartbeat of Leicester City and he kept them ticking over in every game.
His statistics are an amazing read from the successful 2015/16 season. 175 tackles and 157 interceptions. 326 ball recoveries and with a passing accuracy of 82%. When you look at Danny Drinkwater’s statistics, who played next to him in centre midfield, Drinkwater had 106 tackles, 55 interceptions and 342 ball recoveries. Suddenly you see just how important Kante was to Leicester City. As Steve Walsh, Leicester’s former head of recruitment and the man who spotted Kante joked, “in midfield we play three. Drinkwater and Kante either side of him!”
But Kante is so much more than a defensive midfielder. He has power and pace to break forward and start attacks, normally laying it off for one of the headline makers to score. The ground he covers during a match is phenomenal. Kante covers out in wide positions, whether that was covering a full back or using the space that was left to attack. This is where he was vital to the success of Mahrez and, therefore, Vardy.
There are several players that can claim to be like this, but one difference with Kante is he never forgets his defensive duties. He knows when to go and has the footballing brain to know when to sit.
£32 million now seems like a great deal for Chelsea. Essentially, that is the price they have paid to buy back the league title. Kante is Conte’s dream, and is now the man who makes the champions in waiting tick. It was said after he signed for Chelsea that he was Antonio Conte’s type of player and already he has proved this to be the case.
But for Leicester, how do you replace a player like Kante? How many other Premier League teams are screaming out for a player like him to sit in central midfield and cover the ground like he does? It was not down to the fact Leicester didn’t replace him, they couldn’t replace him with anyone as good to perform the same role.
At the time of writing, Kante has made 257 tackles, 210 interceptions and 512 recoveries for Chelsea. With an 88% passing accuracy and has even scored two goals and has four assists. He is having another strong season and the way the League is shaping up another winner’s medal looks very likely come the end of the season.
One thing is for sure, Leicester are in real trouble this season and after Sunday’s loss they lie only one point above the relegation zone. Admittedly you can’t pin that all on the Frenchman, but with Chelsea sitting at the top of the league and Leicester looking like they are in a genuine relegation battle you have to think Kante might be responsible for both.