In the 12th minute of France’s quarter-final against Uruguay, the unlikely event of N’Golo Kante attempting a shot happened. Kante’s shot – his first and only so far of the 2018 World Cup – from outside the box was blocked, but what happened next is significant.
With Kante positioned near the Uruguay penalty area, the South Americans started a quick counter-attack only to be stopped when Samuel Umtiti fouled Luis Suarez near the halfway line, the Kante zone. That particular action of the French midfielder unsuccessfully shooting at goal and the subsequent turnover that led to a mistake – a foul in this case – sum up his importance to this France team.
At the Zenit Arena on Tuesday, Kante might not be the biggest draw among the star-studded cast in action, but he will assume a role of greater significance than any of the players that will take to the pitch when France meet Belgium in the World Cup semi-final.
Kante has arguably been France’s top performer at this World Cup; his presence helping Les Bleus to grow into the tournament’s best defensive unit. He is also among the only two French players to have played every minute of this World Cup so far.
Stationed in a deep midfield position, Kante will be tasked with handling Belgium’s collection of fine attackers in the semi-final. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne have been Belgium’s attacking fulcrums at this World Cup in Russia, but Kante’s familiarity with all of those threats is what tilts the balance of the semi-final towards France.
The 23-man Belgium squad has 12 players who play in the Premier League, a competition which Kante has dominated to such an extent that he has now won two league titles in his three-year stay in the division. To say Kante has a measure of Belgium’s attacking riches will be stating the obvious; to add to that, he is also teammates with Hazard at Chelsea. Kante’s understanding of his opponents is an advantage for France. The same could be said for Belgium, or any other opponent France have faced, but there is only so much that can be done to prevent Kante from doing what he does best – stopping his opponents, snapping at their heels, covering every blade of grass.
For his 5 ft 6 frame, he is not even supposed to make so many headed interceptions and win aerial duels, but he does them nevertheless owing to his anticipatory skills, positioning and pitch coverage. Kante’s speciality is that he manages to go almost unnoticed in games despite being uber-busy; he uncomplicates matches, an underrated quality that serves to highlight his value to France.
Out of nowhere to being everywhere
At this time four years ago, when the 2014 World Cup was in its final stage and France had been knocked out in the quarter-finals, a 23-year-old Kante was off the back of a promotion-winning campaign with French Ligue 2 outfit Caen. In the four years since, Kante has almost appeared out of nowhere to win two Premier League titles, finish second at Euro 2016 and become the heartbeat of the current French team.
There is a tendency to attribute a team’s success in international football to a reformation with the starting point being when the team reached its nadir and the relative height of an international success being the ending point, the journey in between serving to fit the renaissance narrative. We can take the example of Germany’s World Cup success of 2014 which was the culmination of a process that started way back in 2000, the same starting point for the current Belgium team that France will face in Saint Petersburg Tuesday evening.
However, there wasn’t any well-laid plan that led to Kante’s rise to an L’Equipe Tricolore mainstay. He didn’t even feature for the French youth teams and only made his senior international debut in March 2016, less than three months before Euro 2016. It can be said France stumbled on to the brilliance of Kante by chance, and how lucky have they been!
Les Bleus’ 2010 World Cup debacle can easily be taken as the low point that shook their foundations and led them into an era of relative success, although it is anything but. There have been changes no doubt, but none that fits the sweeping, cleansing narrative. Kante’s unlikely ascent strengthens that argument.
His teammate Lucas Hernandez talked up the midfielder’s tireless energy by jokingly quipping that he is everywhere, and even comes out of the earth. Although Hernandez was metaphorical, he couldn’t have said it any better. Emerging out of the blue, Kante is now virtually everywhere.
“His art is so pure that it becomes invisible,” noted celebrated music journalist Richard Williams on Kante in his Guardian column last week. Simplicity is at the heart of that purity – Kante is a one-man ballast in France’s midfield, a team all by himself within the French team.
One statistic that has been doing the rounds of late is that of Belgium captain Hazard’s relentless dribbling against Brazil in the quarter-finals. According to it, Hazard completed all 10 of his attempted dribbles in the game, the most in World Cup history. Whether that unnerves Kante in the semi-final remains to be seen, but judging by his game-breaking abilities (combined total of 69 tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries, the most at this World Cup), there is every reason to believe France will put the brakes on Hazard and Co.
Like the playing days of his international manager Didier Deschamps, Kante’s silent crusade as an unassuming No 6 in the midst of his celebrity teammates will determine whether France can lift the trophy that has remained elusive to them since it was last held aloft by Deschamps himself in 1998.
For that to happen, Les Bleus will need their pint-sized genius to stay close to his midfield zone against Belgium on Tuesday night, unlike when he sized up that shot against Uruguay.
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Updated Date: Jul 10, 2018 13:40:25 IST