Irrepressible Kanté bringing out the best in all those around him for France

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:N’Golo Kanté;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">N’Golo Kanté</a> (right) is stretched by Tijjani Reijnders during <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:France;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">France</a>’s 0-0 draw with the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Netherlands;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Netherlands</a> in Leipzig. Kanté was named man of the match for the second Euro 2024 match in a row.</span><span>Photograph: Ralf Ibing/firo sportphoto/Getty Images</span>

N’Golo Kanté took the stage for a second time in four days and, having offered another blast from the past, sounded a quietly confident note about France’s future.

Perhaps anyone lending a curious ear from rival camps may even have termed it ominous. “I think we had a good feeling,” he said, echoing those who felt their goalless draw against the Netherlands was hardly a ­borefest. “I thought the performance was good. We’re disappointed not to have won but I think it’s looking good for what is to come.”

Related: Netherlands denied Simons winner by VAR as France rest Mbappé in draw

The state of Kylian Mbappé’s face may have become a national obsession but, in Kanté, the tournament favourites have someone equally capable of putting noses out of joint. There has been ample focus on what France have not done in their first two games: they have failed to score enough goals, with or ­without Mbappé, and their sole success against Austria came via an opposition player. Nobody doubts that must change; the other side of the coin is that the recalled Kanté is making their engine room purr with the efficiency of old.

It was a surprise, even if not an unwelcome one, when Didier Deschamps listed Kanté among his travelling party last month. He had been away from the international scene for two years, his most recent cap coming in June 2022. France had reached the World Cup final without him, injury putting paid to his presence in Qatar, and the curtain had seemingly fallen when he moved to Saudi Arabia six months later. Surely France should be aiming higher for their midfield than a 33-year-old playing out time at Al-Ittihad.

They are finding out now that, just as Deschamps knew, Kanté is incapable of easing up. The manager said, in announcing his squad, that Kanté had been “able to regain all his football and athletic ability by playing a lot of matches”. Never mind that the Saudi Pro League operates at a wild remove from the English top flight, where five years ago he arguably rose head and shoulders above the rest. An extraordinary athlete with preternatural football intelligence, he has picked up dazzlingly from where he left off.


Two games at Euro 2024, two man of the match awards. Kanté is back in the groove and France, for all their frustrations further forwards, once again have an operator who brings out the best in all around him. They are more fluid in the middle when he is involved: more available and quicker to progress through the thirds. Suddenly they are blessed with an on-pitch lieutenant who can instil tactical discipline by example but loves to scrap for possession and eat up the ground, too.

“The national team has always been important to me,” Kanté said. “I just want to give everything, and that’s exactly what I did this evening.” Against a Netherlands side who fielded an eyecatching midfielder of their own in the dynamic Tijjani Reijnders, Kanté was outstanding again. He helped France wrest control after a loose start and, when the game was there to be won, fed Antoine Griezmann with a marvellous piece of vision inside the box. Griezmann allowed Bart Verbruggen to save, with the goal on a plate, and France would not come as close again. Kanté, their everything man, deserved at least one assist for his night’s work.

Assuming Mbappé returns at something resembling full tilt – and on Saturday he scored two goals in a 60-minute practice game against Paderborn’s under-21s and assisted another two – those rewards could come in the next three weeks. Kanté is perfectly adept at unpicking a defence with ingenuity once his legwork has broken the lines. Perhaps that will not be until the last 16: France are surely through to the knockouts and, while topping Group D would probably stave off a run-in with Portugal in the last eight, the meeting with an eliminated Poland may be the best time to ensure those relentless legs stay fresh.

Not that, despite all those interruptions, they have ever gone stale. Maybe France would be better off letting Kanté go the distance across what will, if they click, be five more games. “He’s still running out there,” Deschamps joked as the clock approached midnight on Friday. Kanté does not stop and perhaps, when he and Mbappé are back in sync, France will prove irresistible too.