News analysis

Football: Forget tradition and reward Kante with Player of the Season

Just as there are certain types of films that win Oscars, so there are certain kinds of footballers who win Player of the Season awards - and N'Golo Kante does not fall into that category.

Since the beginning of the Premier League era in 1992, only twice has one of the two main awards, the Players' Player of the Year and the Football Writers' Association (FWA) Footballer of the Year, been won by a defensive midfielder: Roy Keane, who won both in 2000 and Scott Parker the FWA award in 2011.

Of the 27 individual honourees in that time, only ex-Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola has been as short as the 1.68m Kante. The past five winners of the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) award have averaged 26 goals in the season they were recognised. So far this season, Kante has found the net only twice.

Yet there is a feeling that, this year, the case for the Frenchman is unarguable. Another outstanding performance against Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Monday - when he scored the only goal, won more of his duels than any other outfield player and produced an all-round contribution that dwarfed that of Paul Pogba, his £89 million (S$153 million) United counterpart - increased the sense that he is putting clear water between himself and his rivals with each display.

"I'd go as far as to say that he's the best central midfield player in the world on current form," ex-Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard said on BBC One. "He may not be scoring lots of goals but what he's giving to the team in the way he's playing, the driving force that he is, I cannot see anyone else in world football better than him at the moment."

In American sports, where they call this sort of award Most Valuable Player, the criterion is much more clearly defined: the winner should be the individual whose performances make the greatest difference to their team. On that basis, Kante's importance is crystal clear.

Chelsea's midfield dynamo N'Golo Kante outshining his Manchester United counterpart Paul Pogba, scoring the only goal in their 1-0 FA Cup quarter-final win. Kante has been the heartbeat of the Blues as they run away with the Premier League.
Chelsea’s midfield dynamo N’Golo Kante outshining his Manchester United counterpart Paul Pogba, scoring the only goal in their 1-0 FA Cup quarter-final win. Kante has been the heartbeat of the Blues as they run away with the Premier League. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

This year's Premier League season has been as much about the triumph of a system as that of a team. Chelsea's switch to 3-4-3 was the season's defining moment, and Kante is the key to it. His prodigious work rate allows Chelsea to get away with playing two in central midfield.

Chelsea are 30 points and 10 places better off after 27 games than they were at this stage last season. Kante was one of four significant summer arrivals (along with manager Antonio Conte, centre-back David Luiz and wing-back Marcos Alonso), but the clue to him being the biggest piece of the jigsaw is provided by the travails of his former club, Leicester City.

Kante was their only significant departure in the summer, yet their points tally at this stage has more than halved, from 56 to 27.

There is a reason why dashing goalscorers tend to hoover up baubles and players such as Kante are rarely recognised. When it comes to identifying a single outstanding footballer, it seems almost perverse to plump for someone who languishes far behind in its defining metric.

Witness the derision heaped on Roy Hodgson when he dared to cast his Ballon d'Or vote for Javier Mascherano in 2015. There is a sense that players such as Kante or Mascherano, for all the excellence with which they discharge their role, are negative influencers of a football game. They add to their team by subtracting from the opponent. They exist to destroy, not create, so to single them out for garlands feels almost nihilistic. Sometimes though, you simply have to recognise the best.

"Kante does the important tasks of pressing, anticipating the play," says Xavier Gravelaine, who was Ligue 1 side Caen's director while Kante was there for two seasons before joining Leicester.

"His influence is so great that he's worth two or even three players, such is his intelligence.

"Pogba is more often talked about because he is bigger and more charismatic, but all great teams need a more defensively minded midfielder. OK, Kante is reserved, but if he was more exuberant that would erode his gifts."

This year's Premier League season has been as much about the triumph of a system as that of a team. Chelsea's switch to 3-4-3 was the season's defining moment, and Kante is the key to it. His prodigious work rate allows Chelsea to get away with playing two in central midfield, when otherwise they might be undermanned.

But Chelsea's 3-4-3 is different to Leicester's 4-4-2, and Kante has changed for the better this season. In a slightly more advanced role he has already played more passes after 27 games of this season (1,602) than he did in last season's entire campaign (1,449), and with considerably increased accuracy (88.2 per cent versus 81.7 per cent).

At Caen they know exactly what they have lost. Asked who he would sign if he could choose one of Kante or Pogba for next season, Gravelaine replies without hesitation: "Kante, Kante, Kante!" Surely, this year, those should be the words on the lips of the player-of- the-year electors.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2017, with the headline 'Forget tradition and reward Kante with Player of the Season'. Print Edition | Subscribe