N’Golo Kante is a different kind of world-class talent heading to Saudi Arabia.
Cristiano Ronaldo can do almost anything with the ball at his feet and has a penchant for the spectacular. Karim Benzema scores goals and has years of experience in finding the target, especially when the stakes are high, and that always gets fans on their feet.
Kante has a different set of skills. As a box-to-box player, the French World Cup winner has arguably been the best on the planet in his position in recent years, as Chelsea fans know better than most.
He was loved at Stamford Bridge, and new coach Mauricio Pochettino, who is a big admirer of the player and tried to sign him for Paris Saint-Germain, will not be happy at having to manage without one of the best in the business.
Al-Ittihad fans should celebrate this move. One of the most successful defensive midfielders in the history of the game is now joining his fellow French star Benzema at the newly crowned champions in Jeddah.
They say in football that you should build from a position of strength, and there is no doubt that the Tigers are doing just that. Kante may not always make the headlines, but he does have a habit of making teams tick.
The likes of Thomas Tuchel and Frank Lampard may have asked themselves whether Chelsea’s season, which saw the London team finish in a disappointing 12th place in the Premier League, would have been different had the 32-year-old not missed most of it with a hamstring injury.
Kante only played seven games.
“I think he is our key, key, key player,” said Tuchel. “But key, key, key players need to be on the pitch, and if he plays only 40 percent of the games, it is maybe a miracle that we arrive in third place. He is our Mo Salah, our (Virgil) van Dijk, our (Kevin) De Bruyne … He is simply that player. He is our Neymar, our Kylian Mbappe. He is the guy who makes the difference.”
This is high praise indeed, but then Kante has come a long way. The Paris-born player first came to global prominence in the 2015-16 season as the fulcrum of Leicester City, the team that shocked the world by narrowly avoiding relegation the season before to win the English Premier League. It was one of the biggest stories and surprises in the history of the sport.
That summer, he joined Chelsea.
“Inevitably Kante has gone,” former Leicester and England striker Gary Lineker said on social media. “Fancy Chelsea will now win the title. He’s that good!”
The UK’s leading football pundit was right. Kante did help the Blues to the title in his first season in the capital. He also won the FA Cup in 2018 and then, three years later, lifted the UEFA Champions League, the biggest prize in club football. In that win over Manchester City, he was hugely impressive and played a major role in Chelsea winning a second continental prize and was named man of the match in Porto.
A few months later, he won the Club World Cup.
But the biggest prize of all came in 2018, of course, when Kante starred as France became World Cup winners in Russia. This is a player who, like his new team-mate Benzema — and new adversary Ronaldo — has won the major prizes that the game has to offer.
Kante, famously, scores very few goals but is regarded as one of the best signings that Chelsea ever made.
“He is amazing with and without the ball,” said former Blues boss Antonio Conte. “When you have N’Golo in your team, you can think you are playing with one player more. You can find a smile on his face every day. He is a very positive guy. He is one of the best players I have had in my career as a coach.”
Coaches love Kante and no doubt Al-Ittihad’s Portuguese coach Nuno Santos will relish working with him.
The 32-year-old could keep going at the top level for a few years yet, and this is an exciting prospect for fans in Saudi Arabia.
As much as the genius of Ronaldo, this quietly spoken midfielder lifts those around him and does the simple things very well indeed, which is sometimes the most difficult thing to do. Local players playing alongside and against him will see first-hand how positioning, vision and work-rate make a difference when performed at the very highest level.
Al-Ittihad have a world-class midfielder to take into the AFC Champions League and the defense of their Roshn Saudi League title next season.
Kante, like Benzema, is a proven winner. They are going to take some stopping.