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Small wonder that Kante is winning Conte's plaudits

Chelsea's N'Golo Kante is a "complete midfielder" according to his manager Antonio Conte.
Chelsea's N'Golo Kante is a "complete midfielder" according to his manager Antonio Conte.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • At Boulogne, N'Golo Kante got to training on a child's push-along scooter. After signing for Leicester City, he awaited a taxi back to the Marriott hotel, where the club had put him up.

Mistaking him for a youth player, one of the training ground security men said: "Staying at the Marriott? Aw. It's nice of your mum and dad to put you up in a big hotel."

Kante arrived at JS Suresnes, his first club, aged nine and already anomalous - a local school cross-country champion who was less than 1.2m tall.

Size would seem the obvious reason why Kante was still at Suresnes, in the French eighth tier, 10 years on at the age of 19, but there was a bigger reason.

The football club knew they had a serious talent and wanted him to progress.

Pierre Ville, Suresnes' old dirigeant (chief), accompanied Kante to try-outs everywhere but hit a problem.

"I'm not going to criticise the (professional) academies," said Ville. "You've got 14- and 15-year-old kids arriving from all over and the academy had to make a decision. They saw N'Golo... well, we knew that, for all his great qualities, he's not a spectacular player.

"He plays for the team. I took him to numerous trials. If he goes to a trial somewhere he's never going to be the most eye-catching because whether he's being scouted or not, he'll always play the same way. Always with great tactical awareness, with discipline and intelligence. For the team."

So that was Kante, the kid - haring about, helping other boys succeed at his own expense by playing for the benefit of team-mates, even in try-out matches.

What held him back then is his calling card now. Assessing him last season, the Everton manager Ronald Koeman, a former Dutch international, observed: "What a player. He is clever in every ball position."

Koeman expressed the "football insider" view, the one that led former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson to brand Kante the best player in the Premier League "by a long way" last season.

That is, there is even more to Kante than the phenomenon of a child-proportioned man, with outsize energy, who led Europe's tackling and interception stats for the past two seasons. Here is the most extraordinary team cog.

"An assistant all over the pitch . . . to put it in a nutshell, Kante is football," is the opinion of the highly technical German analysis site, spielverlagerung.com.

Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy may have won the PFA and Football Writers awards in 2015-16, but Leicester's own squad chose Kante as their player of the year.

Now Chelsea benefit.

Under Claudio Ranieri at Leicester, Kante's job was to be everywhere - "look... there is Kante and he recovers all the balls in this stadium and the other stadiums, everywhere," Ranieri quipped.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte initially needed Kante in a deeper, more tethered, role and his early-season performances drew comparisons with Claude Makelele, another small French-African.

That was not Kante at his best, however - in the 3-0 defeat by Arsenal, he was getting caught on his heels and bypassed - and Conte's switch to 3-4-3 appears to have freed the 25-year-old every bit as much as it has Eden Hazard, David Luiz and Victor Moses.

The formation has Chelsea playing higher up the pitch and with fiercer intensity - allowing Kante to bring that astonishing running power back into play, but also to tweak his game once again.

During Euro 2016, the France coach Didier Deschamps described Kante as "box to box" - portraying his player as having some classic English attacking midfield traits.

And suddenly Kante is channelling Frank Lampard in Conte's rejigged system. "He is a complete midfielder, not only a defensive midfielder," Conte said. "He's a player that always arrives in the box. It's fantastic. He has fantastic stamina, good technique, good positioning, good personality.

"He can play box to box, but I prefer to respect the position. I like when N'Golo goes to press. And with this system I ask a lot to press, to go forward. (At) this I think N'Golo is very good."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Small wonder that Kante is winning Conte's plaudits'. Print Edition | Subscribe