The crowning stanza in the poetic rise of N’Golo Kante from the French second tier to the Premier League title is the one where it becomes clear that his is a story almost without precedent. Therein lies the romance.
It isn’t clear cut at what moment the transformation was made from unknown import to a player on everybody’s radar. It surely wasn’t when his scuffed effort against Watford in November dribbled through the gloves of Heurelho Gomes for his first City goal, and certainly no goal he has scored since has elevated him thus, because there have been none. The Kante effect has been incremental; he has worked by degrees, growing his influence steadily with every block and interception, every harry and every breathless crusade forward.
If we are, though, to look to Premier League winners past for something by which to gauge the Frenchman’s influence, it would surely be his compatriots and fellow midfield powerhouses to whom we turn, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. What is it about France’s ability to produce players in this mould, athletes of such immovable physical foundations that they can provide the entire framework for league titles to be won?
The commonalities, first. All three players were brought in off the back of significant exoduses in their new teams’ midfields. Chelsea in 2004-05 had just lost the Croatian Mario Stanic to retirement and the, admittedly waning, Emmanuel Petit. So too left the flying winger Jesper Gronkjaer and an ill-fitting Juan Veron. At Arsenal in 1996 Paul Merson and David Platt were gone and being phased out respectively, club legends both.
It’s not so much that there were big holes to fill—this mattered only insomuch as the fans needed new objects for their unconditional affections—but rather that each club was freshly ambitious—Arsenal had a new foreign manager, Chelsea new foreign money—and needed new players with a new style to bring about the future.
The departure of Esteban Cambiasso last summer provided a similar opportunity at Leicester for somebody to come in and make central midfield their own, and on their own terms. Much has been made of the achievements of City’s head of recruitment Steve Walsh, but in replacing the departed Argentinean the trick was always going to be in avoiding the trap of going for a like for like replica; in Leicester’s price range, none existed. Instead he recommended Kante, a player who is a master of the basics of running a midfield and who has the energy to always be first to a loose ball.
They’re the same technical foundations from which Vieira and Makelele built their careers in England, and Kante has the potential to leave an equal legacy. All three came to England with a different kind of career behind them; Makelele was already a European heavyweight after spells at Real Madrid and at Marseille, whilst Vieira had tried and failed to make the grade in Italy at Milan. Kante sits apart from in that his record lacked the stellar names boasted by his countrymen. Some would argue it still does.
But these are three players in each other’s mould. Kante has earned his placed as part of this legendary triumvirate.