Quiet man N'Golo Kante's signing at Al Ittihad could speak volumes in Saudi Pro League

French World Cup winner may be one of football's most understated stars, but he should prove a fine acquisition to the kingdom's headline-making top flight

N'Golo Kante helped Chelsea win the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League during his spell in London. AP
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It is difficult to imagine N’Golo Kante enjoying the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the introductions of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in Saudi Arabia, but his arrival in the kingdom should be no less celebrated.

Ronaldo and Benzema were paraded, almost immediately after signing for Al Nassr and Al Ittihad respectively, in front of near-sell-outs at their new clubs’ homes. Kante, famously one of football’s most modest protagonists, would presumably shy from such spotlight.

His signing at Ittihad early on Wednesday was marked by a series of videos on the club’s social media channels, Kante the lead man but announcing his transfer to the newly crowned Saudi champions in typically understated fashion.

Where Benzema casually to camera lauded his new teammate from what appeared a private jet, Kante softly returned the compliment against a nondescript white background.

It is the contradiction that makes his move to the Saudi Pro League all the more enticing. Kante is the quiet man with the booming talent, a diminutive French footballer who dominates large swathes of the pitch. He closes space, harries opponents, knits together his own team’s patterns.

In a nod to his attributes, Kante was welcomed to Ittihad with the social-media hashtag #WelcomeBox2Box. To underline the point, Benzema reminded that he once told his former France teammate he was the best box-to-box midfielder in the world.

For some time, that’s what Kante represented. He was a crucial cog in Leicester City’s incredible 2015/16 Premier League title win, plucked the previous summer from French side Caen.

Shortly after Leicester's only top-flight trophy was sealed, then-head of recruitment Steve Walsh famously quipped, “People think we play with two in midfield, and I say 'No. We play with Danny Drinkwater in the middle and Kante either side”. Kante, Walsh said, gave Leicester “essentially 12 players on the pitch”.

A big-money move to Chelsea followed, where Kante quickly helped the London club capture the Premier League crown in his first season. Later, he won the FA Cup, the Uefa Europa League and Champions League – he was named man of the match in the 2021 final against Manchester City – and the Fifa Club World Cup, the latter of which in Abu Dhabi.

By then, of course, Kante was already a World Cup winner having been integral to France’s success at Russia 2018.

It is little wonder Chelsea managers past and present have been huge admirers. Antonio Conte echoed Walsh’s remarks by highlighting that Kante performs the function of two players; Thomas Tuchel compared the player's importance to his team as Kylian Mbappe, Kevin de Bruyne or Mohammed Salah was to theirs.

Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, tried to recruit Kante during his time at Paris Saint-Germain. Even Maurizio Sarri, having received hefty criticsm for trying to refashion the game's standout defensive midfielder, sought apparently to resign Kante at Juventus.

Now Nuno-Espirito Santo will have the pleasure of Kante’s considerable capacity at Ittihad, even if last season’s injury-plagued campaign does constitute a concern. Hamstrung by a hamstring problem, Kante made nine appearances across all competitions. At age 32, and with a three-year contract agreed, the hope will be he has overcome the issue.

Should he have done, Ittihad have unquestionably added an exceptional performer to a squad that at present boasts the current Ballon d’Or holder (Benzema), last season’s Saudi Pro League top scorer (Abderrazak Hamdallah), another master marksman (Romarinho), and one of its premier playmakers (Igor Coronado).

Given an unprecedented summer spend throughout the Saudi top-flight that is set to increase in the coming days and weeks, there will undoubtedly be more to come.

Yet perhaps few will prove as astute as Kante. While he might not carry the star power of Ronaldo and Benzema – admittedly, not many do – he could turn out to be just as effective a signing. Just don’t expect him to crow about it.

Updated: August 16, 2023, 12:07 PM