“The Foxes beat off competition to secure Kanté,” the official statement enthusiastically read, “Whose tenacious approach has seen him catch the eye.”
No one really believed Leicester’s hype at the time, though. If they had beat off competition, some assumed it probably was akin to holding a midget at arms’ length; N’Golo Kanté was a mid-table Ligue 1 player, Leicester were tipped for the drop, blah, blah, and well, we know the rest.
Fast-forward a year, and Kanté is back with a mid-table club. (Sorry, Chelsea fans. Let us get the digs in a little more; you’ll be back near the top this season.) And how billionaire, super-brand Chelsea F.C. found themselves in a Freaky Friday swap with orgy-shamed, drop-survivors Leicester City last year, started long before Kanté picked his first shade of Premier League blue.
Mourinho arrived at Chelsea eleven years ago. He assembled a team not just of world class talents (and Shaun Wright-Phillips), he melded a team of leaders. Whether they were completely leaders before he joined the club or not is up for debate, as is whether that 2005-winning Premier League side were more efficient than the Invincibles of the year before; they conceded less goals, won more games and accumulated more points. They’ll simply be judged by history as having one more off day.
Just like the Invincibles, the spine of Mourinho’s Chelsea side were all huge presences across the pitch; possibly bigger leaders too. Drogba, a muscular frontman who practically stopped a civil war in his country. Lampard, a midfielder who picked his side up by the scruff of the neck arguably more than any other midfielder this past twenty years: the fact he’s scored more goals than any other at least supports the point. Petr Cech is still organising a defence consisting of Mertesacker and/or Gabriel and winning the Golden Glove; Ricardo Carvalho is still commanding enough to play in a Portugal back four that went on to win the Euros, and despite the full-kit meme and serial court-botherer John Terry being a bit of a joke these days, he was enough of a leader to be given the captaincy over those superstars in Mourinho’s first stint, and still holds it.
Mourinho gave Chelsea fans almost everything in his first spell, but he couldn’t deliver stability. And perhaps the reason why last season he was given so much longer in the job than any other Chelsea manager between his spells, is because his second spell was the one that was meant to deliver just that. Mourinho came back to Chelsea aiming to recline in the hot-seat for a decade, pick up from the first leg, but too much had changed, from his big rivalry in the division – it was now an open league where Leicester City were dark horses – to his physio team. What got him sacked though? The players. That one previously stable thing that was now in transition.
Where Arsenal and United managed to compete at the top for so long because of stability in the dugout, the Chelsea players were the ones who were constant, from Ranieri’s spirited Champions League semi, up until until the Special One’s second coming. Presences on the pitch are the ones that grind out FA Cup finals, plough through the second half of the season and beat a German team in their back garden, on penalties, as much as constant presences on the sidelines make that happen. It’s hard to believe that had prime-era Lampard, Cech and Drogba been on the field, Chelsea would’ve slipped towards relegation months after a title win, even if you’re not of the opinion that the likes Fabregas, Hazard and Costa weren’t to blame for the debacle.
N’Golo isn’t exactly the most vocal member of the City heroes, nor the tallest at 5’6. He doesn’t organise his back-line, chip in with vital 25-yard screamers like Lampard or even settle conflicts in his homeland like Drogba: unless the question is “Who do we like better out of him and Gignac?” But he is a presence, perhaps the biggest in the Premier League last season. If you’re going to compare him to one of Mourinho’s original gang, he’s been referred to as a modern-day Makélélé, but as José learned last season, too much has changed at Chelsea for one great player to leave and another just to slot in.
Because people see Kanté as Leicester’s destroyer in midfield but he’s so much more than that. Sure, he averaged more tackles than second-placed Arsenal’s destroyer, Coquelin, last season. And yes, in 37 games each, he made almost double the interceptions that third-placed Spurs’s Eric Dier made (he got the most in Europe to be fair though, Eric). He received just three yellow cards all season. But the impressive stuff – assuming you’re not particularly wowed by ball-winners and prefer watching Neymar comps on YouTube to discovering the next Matic – is in the ability to bring the ball out of deep midfield. Kanté is as much box-to-box as he is back four shield, combining a pint-sized Vieira-ness with the classic Makélélé traits. He’s everywhere, famously, and will probably offer to play the positions that Chelsea divas neglect, should history repeat again this season.
Pep Guardiola’s sides all play out from the back and first signing İlkay Gündogan is a stylish statement of what kind of football Manchester City will play next season. Kanté is as much of a statement. Once more, Claudio Ranieri has put hard work into created a building block for Chelsea to craft their team around just one season after. N’Golo Kanté isn’t a leader of sorts. But he’s a step in the right in the right direction and the presence that Chelsea desperately need in midfield.