Underdog within the underdog: N'Golo Kanté is the beast in the Leicester City fairytale

A team of Premier League rejects and bargain buys, led by a man who was sacked as the Greece national team coach less than 18 months ago after defeat to the Faroe Islands, clinched the highest prize in English football. After barely surviving relegation a season ago, Leicester City scripted an incredible fairytale to be crowned Premier League champions on Monday night.

At the centre of Leicester’s success, has been linchpin N’Golo Kanté. The 25-year-old was signed by Leicester for a mere £5.6m from Ligue 2 side SM Caen after impressing Steve Walsh, the Foxes' head of recruitment. And he has turned out to be the shrewdest signing of the season.

Kanté joined Caen in the second division in 2013 and played all 38 matches for the French team, helping them finish third and earn promotion to Ligue 1. In his second season, Kanté recorded an impressive average of 4.8 tackles per game and 2.9 interceptions, cutting out opposition attacks more than any other player in France.

Leicester City's N'Golo Kante. Getty

Leicester City's N'Golo Kante. Getty

The Foxes were worried that they would be unable to fill the void after experienced Esteban Cambiasso left the club. Walsh, who had previously scouted Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy for Leicester, felt Kanté would be an apt replacement. But Walsh had a tough time convincing manager Claudio Ranieri to sign Kanté . At 169 cms, Ranieri felt that the baby-faced Frenchman’s diminutive frame would not be able to cope with the bruising rigours of the Premier League.

But within the first few months of the season, Ranieri was happily eating humble pie. As Alan Smith revealed, Ranieri reportedly said to Walsh “Steve, don’t ever listen to me again. I don’t know what I’m talking about!” Kanté has been the engine driving the Leicester City attack, and the backbone holding their defense.

Nicknamed “The Rash” by his teammates for his persistent aggression, Kanté never stops running. “Seventy percent of the earth is covered by water, the rest is covered by Kanté,” has become a running meme for fans on Twitter. When Kanté plays, you can be assured that he will cover every blade of grass for his team. And his numbers are a testament to the impact he has in every game. At 148, Kanté has recorded more interceptions than any other player in the Premier League, averaging at 4.22 per game. He has also won the most number of tackles across the 20 clubs (115), justifying his nomination for the PFA Player of the Year.

Leicester as a side rely heavily on swift counter-attacks to startle and score against opponents. They sit deep and invite the opposition to attack and then snatch the ball to launch a forward charge. This is exactly where Kanté plays a vital role. As the team’s midfield engine, Kanté holds the ball extremely well under pressure and swirls it around to make the first vital pass of the counter. From commanding the defensive midfield to orchestrating precise attacks, Kanté's dynamism has been an important cog in the Leicester machinery. Teaming with Danny Drinkwater, he chases players all over the pitch and bosses the central midfield.

To paraphrase Ranieri, Kanté often appears to be running on an extra set of batteries. In the later stages of the match, it is his relentless energy that acts as a much-needed boost for his teammates. He protects the full-backs by moving over to the wings from time to time. His presence in the midfield strikes a balance, as he ensures he always tracks back to provide defensive cover. His quick-footed passing and defensive anticipation make for a rare winning combination. His foresight and distribution have helped Mahrez and Vardy turn defence into attack.

Sir Alex Ferguson heaped praise on the Frenchman in March calling him “by far the best player in the Premier League season.” Kanté would have fit perfectly in any of Ferguson’s team and it is easy to see why the Scot rates him so highly. While Kanté has scored only one goal and assisted four others, his tireless work-rate and range of passing have been one of the key factors for Leicester City’s historical title run. France head coach Didier Deschamps gave the midfielder his first national call-up in March after his spectacular season with the Foxes. “He's a modern midfielder. He might not be very tall, but he's very useful," Deschamps said. "Kanté wins balls, has great transition play, can be found everywhere, and always has solutions.”

The highlights reel of the 2015-16 Leicester season will feature Mahrez’s rare feat of double-digit assists and goals; Vardy’s 22 goals including the record-breaking streak of 11 consecutive strikes; Kasper Schmeichel’s full-stretch saves to keep five straight clean sheets for the first time; and Wes Morgan’s last-ditch tackles. Kanté probably won’t make the reel, but his consistency has been as indispensable as Vardy’s goals, Mahrez’s assists and Schmeichel’s saves. In a season where the underdogs triumphed in the most outrageous fashion, Kanté has been the ultimate underdog that forms the team’s core.

Updated Date: May 04, 2016 15:21 PM

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