N’Golo Kante may be in his sixth season in England but he is still finding ways to surprise people.
The Frenchman was named man of the match in both legs of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid after two sublime performances.
But it was his creativity and work on the ball that really caught the eye — a side to Kante’s game that has rarely received recognition since he arrived in the Premier League.
As the Blues get set for this evening’s FA Cup final showdown with his former club Leicester, we consider whether the 30-year-old is a more complete midfielder than his reputation suggests.
The gift that keeps on giving
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel refers to Kante as ‘the gift’ — and it is not hard to see why after his recent displays.
Ahead of the second leg with Real, the German tactician heaped praise on the all-action midfield dynamo.
He said: “He is the guy you need to win trophies and that is why we are so, so happy to have him here.
“I was dreaming about this player, fighting for this player at any club I was coaching at and now he is my player.”
Kante rewarded his manager with a phenomenal performance that showcased all aspects of his skill set.
A one-man midfield
Most teams typically operate with three different types of midfielders in their starting line-up — a dominant destroyer, a midfield engine and a creator.
Kante somehow manages to be all three.
The former Leicester man covered a distance of 11.38km in his Stamford Bridge showing against Madrid, which was only bettered by Kai Havertz (11.63km) on the night.
As if that remarkable effort was not enough, he also created three chances and won four duels, while making five interceptions and two ball recoveries.
A slow start to life in England
It is often forgotten that the Frenchman started his Leicester career playing on the left, with Andy King favoured alongside Danny Drinkwater in the centre of the park.
Former Foxes boss Claudio Ranieri reminded everyone of this back in 2017.
He said: “I watched Kante two or three times. At the start I put him on the left wing.”
The first time he completed 90 minutes as a central midfielder in Leicester’s 4-4-2 system was in a 5-2 defeat to Arsenal in 2015.
After that, Ranieri’s men — with Kante patrolling the middle third — won eight of their next 10 matches.
Adapting to the needs of the team
After losing Esteban Cambiasso, the Foxes wanted to add a creative midfielder to their ranks — though they reportedly had Jordan Veretout on their list before he moved to Aston Villa.
Ranieri also confirmed that Jordy Clasie was considered but the club eventually plumped for Kante.
After being deployed alongside Drinkwater, the former Caen player adapted to his new role and later adjusted to Antonio Conte’s tactical approach following his move to Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea’s versatile No7 was then deployed by Maurizio Sarri as a box-to-box midfielder instead of a sitter.
Frank Lampard used him in a variety of roles and now Tuchel has him back in his old position — a jack of all trades carrying out multiple roles at once.
Yet to peak?
Tuchel discussed his plans for Kante when he was first unveiled as Chelsea boss back in January.
He said: “I think he is the strongest in the double-six, in the centre, the heart of the game.
“For me he is a double-six because we can use his energy, his range in his game, his ability to recover the ball.
“For me he is a guy who is a big, big helper for everybody, with the mentality of a water-carrier — but at the same time a world-class player who played a crucial role in the World Cup win for France.
“That’s why it is super important for me to have him.”
Tuchel knows what he wants from Kante. More importantly, he knows how to get the best out of his midfield star.
Being backed by one of the best tactical coaches in the world could result in the diminutive Parisian producing some of his best performances to date.
We have already seen glimpses of this during Tuchel’s short time with the club — but there is plenty more to come.