Too much, too fast
There comes a point in the upward trajectory of every ultra-successful human where people start saying nasty things about you. They did it with Jesus, they did it with Jennifer Aniston and now they’re doing it with N’Golo Kante. The “they” in this instance is not particularly extensive. So far, it mainly consists of Joey Barton and Frank Leboeuf. The two wizened old pros have chosen this week to cast doubt on the Chelsea midfielder’s right to ascend into the highest echelon of footballers. Barton suggested Kante was overrated by pundits, while Leboeuf described the midfielder as “timid” and “not a boss”. They are uncomfortable with the speed of his rise to the top. But why?
He used to be rubbish
Kante’s story is unique in the modern game. Six years ago, he was in the ninth tier of French football. Four years ago, he was at French third division outfit Boulogne, where he allegedly travelled to training every day on a child’s scooter. Even two years ago, he was an unknown box-to-box player at newly promoted Ligue 1 side Caen. Now he’s top of the Premier League – for the second year running – and being hailed as a global superstar. All the big club scouts missed him – it makes no sense. To put the sheer unlikeliness of this scenario into context, it’s the English equivalent of Alex Pritchard becoming Real Madrid’s best player within three years. It is, understandably, too much for some people to handle.
Perceived lack of technical ability
You suspect this is the one that particularly irks Barton and Leboeuf. Despite being accomplished technicians in their day – Leboeuf the archetypal cultured centre-back and Joey the tortured midfield artiste – neither gained the universal respect that Kante currently enjoys. That’s frustrating because they both probably look at Kante and think they’re better than him. After all, all he does is run about a lot. “He’s not a creator,” protested Barton. “He is shy and lacks stature,” scoffed Leboeuf. He might have a “good engine”, but can he play a 70-yard diagonal pass like Frank, or ping a free-kick into the top corner like Joey? It’s a silly and pointless question, because technical ability in itself is not much use on the football pitch – it’s how you use it.
He doesn’t look (or act) the part
Elite footballers tend to exude a certain self-confidence, or swagger, or strut, or any other euphemism for arrogance you can think of. But not Kante. He carries his small, compact body around the pitch like a diligent worker bee, rather than an entitled sporting Adonis. With his kind, almost childlike face, there’s an endearing innocence about him. He may not come to training on a scooter anymore, but he does drive a second-hand Mini Cooper that contrasts sharply with the Bentleys and Mercedes alongside it in the Chelsea club car park. But although all these things should be to Kante’s immense credit, they appear to have provoked a snobbish sceptism among those who expect their superstars to be a certain way.
He appears to have ‘completed’ football
Since the day he arrived in English football 20 months ago, Kante has made playing in the world’s so-called toughest league look startlingly easy. It’s fair to assume, given the respective league positions of Leicester and Chelsea over the past two seasons, that neither club would have won the league without him. He is objectively the best player in the country, and he didn’t even need any practice. He takes teams to the top of the Premier League and there is currently nothing to suggest he won’t stay there forever. But the longer he remains at the summit, the more people will queue up to knock him off his perch.
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