Kanté’s drive takes him to his­tory

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

LON­DON — The most mis­lead­ing scene of this sea­son came in late Septem­ber, 40 min­utes into Arse­nal’s 3-0 de­struc­tion of Chelsea at the Emi­rates. Me­sut Özil, fac­ing his own goal about 10 yards out­side Arse­nal’s penalty area, sensed N’golo Kanté bear­ing down on him and deftly rolled the would-be am­busher be­fore gal­lop­ing for­ward.

As he ap­proached the Chelsea area, the Ger­man ex­changed passes with Alexis Sánchez be­fore send­ing a bob­bly vol­ley into the net from 12 yards. Kanté had tried to keep pace with Özil but ran as if tow­ing a ship. Even the ref­eree, Michael Oliver, over­took the French­man. Some­thing was badly wrong.

Fast-for­ward seven and a half months and that all seems like a false mem­ory. Arse­nal are sput­ter­ing glumly in Chelsea’s wake, Özil is again ac­cused of dif­fi­dence and Kanté is hailed as the Pre­mier League’s most dy- namic per­former, voted the Player’s Player of the Year and the Foot­ball Writ­ers’ Player of the Year. He has be­come the first out­field player since Eric Can­tona to win backto-back top-flight ti­tles in Eng­land with two dif­fer­ent clubs (the goal­keeper Mark Sch­warzer also achieved that feat with Chelsea and Le­ices­ter City but was a re­serve who sel­dom played for ei­ther).

In many re­spects the two French­men, Kanté and Can­tona, could not be more dif­fer­ent. The lat­ter was a flam­boy­ant artist whose great­est work came when he found a way to marry his team’s need to con­quer with his own in­stinct to sub­vert and be vin­di­cated. His blend of pre­ci­sion, flair, com­po­sure and volatil­ity re­quir­ing care­ful han­dling.

Kanté plays with no swag­ger and al­most with­out an ego. He is so self-ef­fac­ing in the dress­ing room that team-mates say they some­times do not even no­tice him. But every­one no­tices the 26-year-old on the pitch. He is im­pos­si­blep to miss be­cause he is ev­ery­where,y , ha­rass­ing op­po­nents, piec­ing to­gether moves and nd cover­ing more ground than Google maps. He did so much work for Le­ices­ter last ast sea­son that Clau­dio Ranieri said they hey lost two play­ers in the sum­mer when hen Chelsea bought him for £32m. Le­ices­ter eices­ter fans used to re­fer to him as “the he Kanté twins”.

The em­bar­rass­ment at the hands of Arse­nal rse­nal was a turn­ing point in Chelsea’s ea’s sea­son be­cause it forced An­to­nio Conte onte to make changes that, among other r ben­e­fits, en­abled Kanté’s in­flu­ence to grow. row. Be­fore that the ragged­ness of Chelsea’s ea’s de­fence, es­pe­cially the slow­ness of their heir right-back, Branislav Ivanovic, im­posed mposed de­mands for cov­er­age that were ex­ces­sive even for Kanté.

He had been able to make a 4-4-2 sys­tem work for Le­ices­ter when out­num­bered in mid­field be­cause they, at least, had a rigid de­fence. Chelsea’s shift to us­ing three cen­tre-backs and a pair of mo­bile wing-backs al­lowed Kanté to con­cen­trate his mas­sive ef­forts sen­si­bly. Sen­si­ble for him, that is; most other play­ers do not have the vim and in­tel­li­gence to dom­i­nate as he does.

It is rare in the Pre­mier League that a player is so much bet­ter than his peers at a par­tic­u­lar as­pect of the game that he re­sem­bles an adult play­ing in an un­der-age tour­na­ment. Yaya Touré could give that im­pres­sion in his prime, swot­ting away op­po­nents as if they were Lil­liputians as he ma­rauded for­ward from mid­field. There are speed­sters such as Jamie Vardy who can leave de­fend­ers spin­ning help­lessly.

But no one other than Kanté sets op­po­nents aquiver just by his re­lent­less ca­pac­ity to dis­pos­sess them and be where they mean to be and do what they want to do. He does not merely over­run them, he squats their minds. Many must have felt as if they had no choice but to vote for him as Player of the Year. That is a bril­liant achieve­ment for a man who was not schooled in any academy, hav­ing been re­jected by sev­eral in France be­fore turn­ing pro­fes­sional with Caen at the age of 22.

Kanté’s de­par­ture from Le­ices­ter was the key trans­fer of last sum­mer, be­ing in­te­gral to the cham­pi­ons’ col­lapse and Chelsea’s re­nais­sance and the player has evolved since his move. Be­cause Chelsea tend to have much more pos­ses­sion than Le­ices­ter did, Kanté has not needed to tackle so much this sea­son (but has still done so more than any­one else ex­cept for Ever­ton’s Idrissa Gu­eye) or make as many in­ter­cep­tions (he has made half as many as he did last sea­son, al­though he is still in the top five in the Pre­mier League for that, too).

He has, on the other hand, made far more passes, not sim­ply to de­liver the ball to more cre­ative team-mates in the way that Claude Makelele used to at Stam­ford Bridge, but also to undo de­fences him­self. His beau­ti­fully ex­e­cuted pass to Pe­dro in the buildup to Chelsea’s third goal in Jan­uary’s 3-0 win at Le­ices­ter demon­strated the evo­lu­tion neatly.

There is still scope for Kanté to im­prove. Conte says his pass­ing can be honed fur­ther and he could de­velop more com­po­sure in the box, his jagged thrust and fin­ish against Manch­ester United in Oc­to­ber be­ing his only league goal of the cam­paign.

Most of all, he needs to show he can main­tain his in­flu­ence while com­pet­ing in Europe as well as do­mes­ti­cally. Play­ing in the Cham­pi­ons League is a priv­i­lege that he is yet to en­joy, a test that he is yet to en­dure. Next sea­son will be the most chal­leng­ing of Kanté’s ca­reer. He has risen to every­one he has faced so far. An­other ti­tle is cer­tainly not out of the ques­tion for the Pre­mier League’s Mr Re­lent­less.

CHELSEA’S mid­field dy­namo N’golo Kanté is the first out­field player since his fel­low French­man Eric Can­tona to win back-to-back top-flight ti­tles with dif­fer­ent clubs.

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