N’Golo Kante cut an unremarkable figure when he arrived in English football 18 months ago following a £5.6 million transfer from French club Caen to Leicester City.
Alan Birchenall, the former Leicester midfielder and now club ambassador, tells the story of how Kante arrived at the Foxes’ Belvoir Drive training ground: “[He] stood outside my office like he was lost — I thought he was looking for the youth-team dressing-room because he was so small.”
Perhaps Birchenall’s misunderstanding gets to the root of why Kante has been such a success in the Premier League, initially helping Leicester to their remarkable Premier League title triumph last season and now becoming indispensable at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield under Antonio Conte.
Quite simply, it is easy to underestimate the 25-year-old France international. He lacks physical presence, avoids the limelight, does not attract the attention of referees and you can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times you have heard him speak.
Kante just gets down to business, but after a year-and-a-half in England, the secret really is now well and truly out. The Parisian has become one of the most important players in the Premier League and, with three months of the season to go, is arguably the outstanding candidate to be crowned Footballer of the Year.
No player has won back-to-back titles in the English top flight with different clubs since Eric Cantona with Leeds and then Manchester United in 1992 and 1993 — Mark Schwarzer was given a medal at Leicester last season, despite not making a single league appearance following his arrival from Chelsea in July 2015 — but Kante is on course to emulate his fellow countryman at Stamford Bridge this season.
His performance in Saturday’s 3-1 win against Arsenal at the weekend emphasised Kante’s huge value to Chelsea and once more embarrassed Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, who has claimed repeatedly that he tried to sign Kante, before his move to Leicester in 2015 and again before his move to Chelsea.
Wenger was once the master of plucking unheralded players from the French league and turning them into stars at Arsenal, but Kante was the one that got away and it will hurt even more because he is precisely what Wenger’s team needs.
But then the same applies to most of Chelsea’s rivals — perhaps Tottenham Hotspur aside, they would all be so much stronger with Kante taking care of business in midfield.
One statistic was aired during Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat of Arsenal last Saturday, stating that no player has made more tackles in the Premier League over the last three seasons than Kante.
So what, you may ask? Well, Kante has only played one-and-half seasons in the Premier League, so to top that table in half the time underlines his incredible industry and contribution, both at Leicester and Chelsea.
But here are a couple of others to emphasise the point that Kante is more than a destroyer and more often than not, wins the ball when he tackles.
This season, according to official Premier League statistics, he sits third in the table of tackles made — behind Everton’s Idrissa Gueye (92) and Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson (88) with 82 tackles. Last season, he was top with 175 tackles — 31 more than second-placed Gueye, who was then at Aston Villa.
But when it comes to fouls committed, Kante is currently down in 19th position with 34, while last season, he ended the campaign in 25th place having given away just 43 fouls. Gueye topped the charts with 68, although he seems to have cleaned up his act this season having committed just 31 fouls — from four fewer games than Kante.
Just as he formed a crucial midfield partnership with Danny Drinkwater at Leicester last season, Kante has now developed a formidable axis with Nemanja Matic at Chelsea, with the Serbia international becoming revitalised alongside his new teammate.
It is too simplistic to suggest that Kante’s departure is the reason for Leicester’s struggles and his arrival the catalyst for Chelsea’s revival, but they are both undoubtedly contributory factors.
But will his performances this season prove enough to earn him the individual accolades that his displays have merited? Will his fellow players and the Football Writers’ Association vote for him to win their respective Footballer of the Year awards?
Claude Makelele proved equally important to Chelsea during his five years at Stamford Bridge but never came close to individual recognition and is Kante too unnoticeable, too understated, to top the voting?
As Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have shown over the past decade, goal scorers and forwards tend to catch the eye and win the votes when it comes to individual awards, but who are Kante’s rivals in the Premier League?
By this stage of most seasons, a leading contender for the awards has usually emerged, but the field remains comparatively open this term.
Eden Hazard is beginning to make the difference for Chelsea, as he did during the title-winning campaign two years ago, and his solo goal against Arsenal will be replayed over and over again to highlight the Belgian’s class.
But Chelsea teammates David Luiz and Diego Costa have also enjoyed impressive seasons, in defence and attack respectively, so both will also win support and potentially split the voting to enable a player from elsewhere to emerge as the victor.
Harry Kane has enjoyed another fine season at Tottenham, as has teammate Dele Alli. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has confounded the doubters at Manchester United by scoring 20 goals in all competitions, at 35, following his free transfer arrival from Paris Saint-Germain last summer.
All of the above are strong candidates, but Kante’s consistency, reliability and contribution arguably outstrips the rest.
At this stage, he is the man who truly makes the difference and should be leading the race to become the 2016-17 Footballer of the Year.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_