Saturday 23 September 2017

'Humble player' Kante creating another mini sensation in Chelsea engine room

N’golo Kante is proving himself to be so much more than a ball-winning midfielder. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
N’golo Kante is proving himself to be so much more than a ball-winning midfielder. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Matt Law

N'Golo Kanté was too small to fit the profile of midfielder that Jose Mourinho was interested in when Chelsea first looked at him. And yet Mourinho attempted to steal Kanté from under the noses of his former employers for Manchester United this summer.

Chelsea had a scouting report written on Kanté while he was still playing in France, but Mourinho's brief at the time was to focus on taller, more robust midfielders.

Mourinho had a different outlook when he personally called Kanté in July to try to convince him to snub Chelsea and instead move to United, but by then the player's mind was made up.

Size was never going to be an issue for Chelsea head coach, Antonio Conte, who, at 5ft 10in, is only slightly taller than 5ft 7in Kanté and was an accomplished midfielder for Juventus and Italy.

What was important to Conte is that Chelsea's very own 'mighty mouse' can fit into any system he wants to play, which has already been proven as the Italian has switched from a 4-1-4-1 to a 3-4-3.

While Jamie Vardy rejected the advances of Arsenal and Riyad Mahrez signed a new contract, Kanté became the Leicester City Premier League title winner who got away as he joined Chelsea for £30m. He goes up against his former team-mates for the first time in today's lunchtime kick-off.

Conte: Hit jackpot with Kante. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters
Conte: Hit jackpot with Kante. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters

Asked why he thought Kanté gave up Champions League football at Leicester to join Chelsea, a club who finished 10th last season and are in the process of change, Conte laughed and said: "I don't know. You must ask him. I hope it was after my conversation with him."

Vardy tells a story about Kanté in his autobiography, 'From Nowhere', that encapsulates what he is all about.

"When he first signed (for Leicester) he didn't think he'd need a car," wrote Vardy.

"He said he would walk to training. But he got himself a Mini and that car became his pride and joy.

"In training we'd do a keep-ball box, with 11 of us around the outside and two in the middle, and I started to think that N'Golo was deliberately giving it away because getting it back was so much fun for him."

Kanté could have earned in excess of £100,000 a week, as he is doing at Chelsea, by staying with Leicester and would have been paid far more to join either United or Paris Saint-Germain.

He missed out on landing a £105,000 BMWi8 as a reward for winning the League from Leicester owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and has been parking up his beloved Mini alongside the fleet of different super cars at Chelsea's Cobham training ground.

Kanté, who is single and lives alone, does not fit the stereotype of a Premier League footballer. He is quiet to the point of being shy, dresses conservatively and there is no affected swagger.

It is this lack of ego and willingness to sacrifice himself that Conte most admires about the France international, and why he was not upset when Kanté was outpaced by referee Michael Oliver and Mesut Ozil in the build-up to Arsenal's third goal at the Emirates.

"He's a humble man, a humble player," said Conte. "I like these types of players, who put the team before themselves. I want this type of player. Sometimes N'Golo pays for his generosity. In this situation (against Arsenal), he paid for it.

"He went late to stop the opponent and he (Ozil) turned and he passed him. But I prefer he made a mistake through generosity than another type of mistake. I prefer he went than to stay and wait. He's brave. He's not tall, but for me he has great qualities. It's good he puts his quality into the team."

People in France were surprised Kanté decided to join Leicester, a club who had almost been relegated from the Premier League, instead of Marseille, who had finished fourth in Ligue 1 and qualified for the Europa League.

But he reasoned that moving to England for £5.6m from Caen was better for his long-term prospects - and he was proved right.

Similarly, Kanté was willing to give up Champions League football because he believes that, over the course of his five-year contract, he will win more honours at Stamford Bridge.

Claudio Ranieri claimed that Kanté was an extra man for Leicester by remarking "the referee counted 11, but we were 12" and despite the fact he came back late for pre-season after reaching the final of the European Championship with France, the 25-year-old has demonstrated his unique stamina to Conte.

But there is more to Kanté than just energy - in Chelsea's victory over Hull City, he had more touches of the ball and completed more passes than in any of his previous 43 Premier League games.

"I think N'Golo worked less with us in this first period because he came back from France very late compared to the other players," said Conte.

"But he has a good metabolic system, he's very good in this aspect. N'Golo has fantastic stamina and covers a lot of ground.

"This is very important for the balance when you play offensive football and also to have a player who recovers the ball back very well, winning the ball.

"We did a good piece of business. N'Golo is an important player for the present and the future for Chelsea." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Chelsea v Leicester City,

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Telegraph.co.uk

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