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Why this man has been the Premier League Player of the Season

The Foxes are currently five points clear at the top of the table.

Leicester City's N'golo Kante has become a key player for the team.
Leicester City's N'golo Kante has become a key player for the team.

Overview

WHEN ASKED TO name the best player in the Premier League this season, Man United legend and former manager Alex Ferguson cited N’Golo Kante as the standout individual.

While there have been more naturally talented and eye-catching players, anyone who has been watching Leicester closely this year will find it hard to disagree.

Two seasons ago, Kante was a regular in the French second division with Caen. Last summer, he was bought by Leicester for just €8 million (£5.6 million). And this week, the 24-year-old’s meteoric rise was confirmed, as he was named in the France squad for the first time.

Kante has featured in 29 of Leicester’s 30 Premier League games so far this season. Tellingly, they slipped up in the one match that he was unavailable for — the recent 2-2 draw at home to West Brom.

Initially, after joining the club, the Paris-born midfielder was used mainly from the bench. But since the 5-2 loss to Arsenal back at the end of September, he has effectively been an ever present in the side.

And it’s easy to see why coach Claudio Ranieri has placed faith in the player, who had just one season in Ligue 1 under his belt before signing for Leicester.

According to squawka.com, Kante has made more tackles (93) and interceptions (120) than any other Premier League player this season.

Speaking after selecting him ahead of Man United’s Morgan Schneiderlin in the French squad earlier this week, manager Didier Deschamps — a fine defensive midfielder in his own era — highlighted Kante’s strengths.

“He’s a complete midfielder,” he told reporters. “He has a great approach to recovering the ball — to sense the path of it and to position himself well.

But he doesn’t just do that. He has the energy to play what they call in England a box-to-box role. He’s capable of taking part in attacks too.

“It was definitely less emphasised at Caen, where he also put in some very good performances.

I was already watching him but now he’s been highlighted because it’s Leicester, they’re the surprise and he’s stringing together very good performances every game.”

Nevertheless, you could argue some of his Leicester teammates are more deserving of the player of the season accolade. Riyad Mahrez has either scored or assisted just under 50% of the Foxes’ goals this season, while Jamie Vardy is the Premier League’s joint top scorer who, with 19 goals and five assists, has also had a spectacular campaign.

Yet Leicester’s success is a triumph of the team over the individual, and Kante is the ultimate unselfish player. Despite Barcelona more or less laying down the template of what a great football side should look like in recent years, the Premier League has remained dominated for the most part by physically imposing central midfielders rather than technically excellent footballers in the Xavi or Andres Iniesta mould.

When you think of great Premier League midfielders from down through the years, you think of players who — more than anything else — were phenomenal athletes – Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Yaya Toure and Nemanja Matic at their best. This season, Kante and to a certain extent, Dele Alli, have emerged as the heirs to the English top flight’s long lineage of dynamic box-to-box midfielders.

With all that in mind, let’s take a detailed look at Leicester’s emphatic 3-1 victory over fellow title hopefuls Man City at the Etihad Stadium last month to highlight what makes Kante such a special player.

Discipline, tackling and timing

Leicester started this game at a particularly high tempo and Man City struggled to cope with their intensity early on, ultimately resulting in the visitors taking a third minute lead courtesy of Robert Huth getting on the end of Mahrez’s free kick.

Unsurprisingly, Kante had already set the tone with this crunching challenge on Yaya Toure.

challenge

Yet unlike certain other more fiery midfielders, Kante is ultra-disciplined and has the footballing intelligence and positional sense to back up his impressive physical attributes.

Though he is not immune to bursting forward on occasion, Kante is adept at holding his position and closing the space when required. During set pieces for example, with the centre backs going into the box, he is often the furthest Leicester player back, waiting to pick up any loose balls if necessary

sittingback

Kante’s reading of the play is consistently excellent — watch here as he shows good awareness of the danger to close down Zabaleta’s cross. It may seem quite basic and obvious, but it’s no accident that Kante manages to get himself in these key positions time and again.

readsplay

Here is another example, as he’s well positioned to clear Fabian Delph’s cross…

readsdanger

And while he’s made more successful tackles than any other Premier League player, not only is Kante not afraid to put his foot in, but he also has a very good understanding of when to commit and when to be patient and simply jockey his opponent.

There were several instances in this game where he did well to avoid the temptation to dive into a challenge (see example below)

discipline

His excellent sense of timing is therefore one of the reasons why Kane has never been sent off for Leicester, picking up just three bookings in 32 appearances in all competitions this season — an excellent record for a defensive midfielder.

Power

Though midfielders are often talked of as ‘energetic’ and this term makes you wonder why it’s not a given that all Premier League footballers display such enthusiasm, Kante takes the description to another level.

He may not get many goals, but his rampaging runs have been a key feature of Leicester’s much-lauded counter-attacking prowess.

So impressive is Kante’s pace, power and athleticism that at times, he merits comparison to another great French midfielder — former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira.

Regardless of whether it’s the eighth or 80th minute, Kante possesses an amazing ability to drive forward in dynamic fashion and exploit any spaces left open by the opposition.

Unlike so many defensive midfielders who are content to simply focus on off-the-ball work and pass it sideways when in possession, Kante is often as proficient in attack as he is in defence.

While he unfortunately slips and loses possession ultimately, notice below the amount of ground Kante makes up in just a couple of seconds.

power

In the Leicester-Liverpool last month, Kante was similarly dominant, showing incredible stamina in the 82nd minute even when the game was all but won at 2-0.

energy-4

Yet this doggedness and determination is most prominent in defensive situations.

City struggled to gain any momentum in attack over the course of the 90 minutes, and it was because of the tenacity of Kante and midfield partner Danny Drinkwater that the hosts hardly created a chance of note.

determination

Kante v Sterling/Toure

There was plenty of responsibility thrust on Raheem Sterling’s shoulders for this game by manager Manuel Pellegrini.

The expensive summer signing was given a more central attacking role as he tried to influence the play, but the former Liverpool player was largely ineffectual, with Kante doing an excellent job of curbing the England international’s threat, ensuring a frustrating afternoon for the 21-year-old.

pressing

crunching

Similarly, up against a player of Yaya Toure’s experience, Kante faced one of his biggest tests of the season. Yet there was no question who emerged victorious in the midfield battle, as the Ivory Coast international hardly won a tackle all afternoon.

strongtackle

unseen

Consequently, it was no surprise when Pellegrini opted to substitute two out of his three central midfielders, with both Toure and Fabian Delph leaving the field after just 52 minutes. The arrival of Fernando to proceedings suggested the City boss felt a more mobile, athletic player was required to reduce Kante’s dominance.

However, the young French midfielder continued to have a big influence on proceedings…

energy80

Kante at his best

Leicester’s second goal on the hour mark, which effectively killed off any hope of a City comeback, was a snapshot of Kante at his very best.

The 24-year-old shows all his best attributes in this one clip — strength, composure, speed, stamina and intelligence. He wins the ball deep in his own territory before sprinting forward and carrying the ball at speed. Most defensive midfielders at this point would look to hold the ball up and perhaps pass it back to a defender to boot upfield. But Kante shows in this instance what separates him from the crowd.

Instead of looking for the easy option, the Foxes midfielder beats his man before slipping through Mahrez to score the crucial second goal. Given that he is able to show such skill playing for a technically limited side such as Leicester, it is scary to think what Kante could do for one of the truly elite European footballing teams.

composure

Conclusion

If Leicester do go on to win the title, the Man City game will undoubtedly be remembered as a key moment.

Coming up against a far financially superior side with plenty of past title race experience, many expected Leicester to wilt under the pressure, yet the opposite occurred.

On the afternoon in question, the likes of Kante and Mahrez proved they had the big-game mentality needed to go all the way, as they secured a deserved 3-1 victory over their big-spending rivals.

So why does Kante deserve player of the season over the similarly influential likes of Vardy and Mahrez?

As good as the attacking duo have been, they alone have not been the difference. Granted, Vardy has scored 19 goals this campaign, but Charlie Austin scored 18 for relegated QPR last season.

The old truism about attackers winning teams games and defensive players winning sides titles applies in this instance.

No player epitomises Leicester’s strengths more than Kante. According to teamtalk.com, only West Brom (42.4%) and Sunderland (43.2%) are averaging less possession than Leicester (44.7%) this season.

Their style goes against conventional wisdom of what is required to create a winning football team. Yet what makes the Foxes so formidable is their proficiency at pressing and winning the ball back deep in the opposition’s half. Even more so than the heroics of Vardy and Mahrez, this strategy has paved the way for their unlikely title challenge, and Kante has been at the heart of its success.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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