If there is no surprise that the majority of Premier League players have picked N’Golo Kante as their first choice for player of the year, there is one surprise from his sensational debut season at Chelsea: he was not Antonio Conte’s first choice for central midfield.
That was actually Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, but the Italian very soon realised it was far from a problem to miss out on the Belgian - not when he had the irrepressible Kante making almost every single tackle and just making Chelsea better. He realised he truly had a one-of-a-kind midfielder, who almost did the work of several players.
This is the thing about the champions elect, too, and why the 26-year-old deserves to win this individual award. Chelsea’s season can essentially be divided into markedly different stages, with each almost defined by different players.
An uncertain and unsteady start was swept away by the switch to three at the back, whereupon the speed that Victor Moses adjusted to the right wing-back - and then so regularly rampaged up the flank - reflected and fired the way a reshaped Chelsea were resoundingly blowing away opposition. Other Premier League sides soon adjusted to this, but couldn’t adjust to Diego Costa, who went through a prolonged period of scoring big match-winning goals in otherwise tight games. Then came a few unexpected setbacks, like the defeats to Crystal Palace and Manchester United, only for Eden Hazard to rise up and show his true level with huge moments.
There were other players like David Luiz and Marcos Alonso who also stepped up at key times having generally stood out, but the relevant point is how they alternated in importance. As one endures a lull, another enjoys a resurgence. Not so with Kante.
The one constant of Chelsea’s season since that landmark September game against Arsenal has been his dominance; his relentlessness.
“I always appreciated this type of player, with great generosity, great ability to work for the team,” Conte said last month. “I think it's important to have this type of player if we want to win. Not only great talent, but players who run a lot during a game.
“He's an example. N'Golo is a fantastic guy, fantastic player, great commitment, great behaviour. A great example.”
There are many examples of just how oppressively difficult he is for opposition players to perform against. Take Chelsea’s hard-fought 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in December. At one tense point late in the game, Wilfried Zaha looked to create an attack and went one way with the ball, only to find Kante there.
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The winger then deftly turned the other way with the kind of move that has bamboozled so many players this season… only to see Kante there again. The attack was thwarted, and that is only how effect the midfielder is in a confined space. Against Liverpool, we saw the other side of his game, when he ran from one side of the pitch to the other and somehow improbably won the ball back.
He has been a key factor in getting Chelsea back on top, and it only further emphasises his contribution that Leicester City so struggled to adjust to his absence.
There is occasionally a fair purist’s argument with awards over whether it is right to give it to a player who destroys rather than creates; who wins the ball rather than plays it.
Hazard himself addressed that.
"In my eyes N'Golo deserves to win the trophy. Not only for this season, but for the two terrific consecutive seasons he’s played. It doesn’t always have to the guy who scores a lot of goals, or gives the most assists. Ngolo is not decisive, but he’s decisive in another meaning, in another part of the pitch. I think it would be good for football that his type of player gets the chance to win a trophy.
Kante ultimately performs to such an effective level that it goes beyond such argument, and allows the whole team to function on a higher level altogether. As is the widespread feeling around the Chelsea dressing room, too, everyone just has to worry much less when Kante is in the team.
He is irrepressible and irreplaceable and now on the brink of winning his second league title in a row.
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If it would be simplistic to say he was the primary factor for both, he has made life so much more difficult for all opposition.
It often feels like Kante is everywhere on a pitch, so he is finally on a podium.
That should be no surprise, and no debate.
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