Why N'Golo Kante will be key to France World Cup triumph
There’s no undermining the importance of every player in a team. However, onlookers always find a way to single-out individuals for special praise. The scorer of the winning goal will always be remembered at the expense of mates who made vital tackles, blocks, passes and saves that made it possible. N’Golo Kante falls into the latter category.
In two years, France has reached two finals at major tournaments. They did so on the back of players who have come of age in terms of teamwork, unity and efficacy. Les Blues have a winning formula. It’s built on their ability to respond to adversity, correct errors, protect leads and close down matches. That can be seen in the fact that Didier Deschamp’s men have kept a clean sheet in four of their six matches leading up to Sunday’s final and when they didn't, against Belgium and Argentina, they raised their game in response.
If you’re going to praise the French defence, and Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti deserve it, you can't overlook the protection provided by the midfielders. That department is kept on lock by one man. I’m talking about the first defensive midfielder to be named the PFA Player of the Year in the last 16 years, N’Golo Kante.
France's return to glory has coincided with Kante’s meteoric rise. Fans outside the Premier League have heard the story, so I won't bore you repeating it. Things happened quickly, though. They didn't slow down when he moved to Chelsea and even when his English Blues stuttered, he found a new gear with the Francophone variety. Look at how his career has progressed.
- 2015, Ligue 2 Caen
- 2016, Premier League Champion with Leicester
- 2017, Premier League Champion with Chelsea and eighth on the Ballon d'Or list.
- 2018, World Cup finalist [or more?]
The diminutive midfield combatant has played every minute of the French World Cup campaign thus far. He’s not the most noticeable player on the pitch until the ball is no longer at your feet. He stands just 5’6” and doesn’t weigh more than 68kg. Content to let Varane, Paul Pogba and Olivier Giroud dominate airspace for France, he is ground control. Quietly, he’ll do the job of two men and cover more territory than three.
Kante’s ability to read the game has come in handy for France. Little wonder the French are yet to concede a goal from a counter-attack at this tournament. His versatility and efficiency in closing down the opposition have given a new lease of life to his midfield partner, Paul Pogba. In 11 outings, France have never lost a game when those two started together.
Kante’s ball recovery ability is second to none. Per Opta stats, he’s recovered the ball 48 times in Russia. No player has done better. And he’s done so neatly too, with only one booking.
Kante isn’t just the man who shuts the door on the opponent, his passing ability is astute. In the semi-final against Belgium, he posted a pass-accuracy of 91%. For the entire competition, his pass-success rate stands at 89.6%. Add that to the 3.2 interceptions and 2.3 successful tackles he makes per match and you understand why the 27-year-old has been a revelation.
France will play Croatia in the final. That’s no news, either. What is news is that Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have not played a midfield in this tournament who can match them. When facing Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Kante, they'll discover there's a first time for everything.