The search for the first Fox extends outside the top 100. Leicester City have been crowned champions but have no one who ranks in the first century for passing accuracy in the Premier League.
Typically, N’Golo Kante leads the way. Untypically, a man who is first among equals in other respects comes in 109th of the 296 players who have featured often enough to rank in WhoScored’s charts.
He finds a teammate 81.3 per cent of the time. Reasonable, but not remarkable.
Yet Kante is, by some distance, the dominant midfielder in England this season. He tops the tackle and interception counts. He has been an all-action presence, setting the tone by snapping around opponents’ heels, regaining the ball and looking forward straight away.
Kante, 25, has become the anti-Xavi, an emblematic figure for a very different style of play. His game is about tackling, not tiki-taka. He is at the vanguard of the uprising against the Spanish pass masters.
The backlash has incorporated Spain, with Atletico Madrid proving a team can win without the ball. The English game has traditionally been based on tempo, not technique, on physicality, not passing precision.
It has taken a Frenchman of Malian heritage, raised in the banlieues of Paris, to illustrate the effectiveness of old-fashioned British methods. He has become as ubiquitous without the ball as Xavi was with it during his heyday for Spain and Barcelona.
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Adopting a wisecrack about dynamic midfielders elsewhere, Leicester fans have quipped: “Seventy per cent of the planet is covered by water, the rest is by N’Golo Kante.” Manager Claudio Ranieri joked he thought the former Caen player had a little illegal assistance because he had so much power. “This player Kante, he was running so hard that I thought he must have a pack full of batteries hidden in his shorts,” he said. “He never stopped running in training.”
Kante has helped explain why a team with the third least possession in the Premier League and the lowest passing accuracy — a mere 70 per cent — has won the division. Leicester have not had the talent to be Barcelona, or even Barcelona Lite, as Arsenal were long branded. Their energy has been their forte, their directness their trump card.
No midfielder averages more inaccurate long passes in the league than Danny Drinkwater, Kante’s sidekick. The Englishman, who has a greater passing range than Kante, has a habit of releasing Jamie Vardy on the counter-attack, too, but is willing to risk losing the ball in his attempts to do so.
The suspended Drinkwater will be confined to a watching brief for Leicester’s title party against Everton on Saturday. Kante is certain to feature, but there is also the possibility a celebration will be a farewell to the King Power Stadium.
Kante, who was signed for a mere £5.6 million (Dh 29.85m), has a reported £20m release clause in his contract. Chelsea, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain are supposedly interested.
Ranieri produced an idiosyncratically eloquent plea for his players to stay this week. “If they come to me I say this: ‘Be careful’. If you go away you don’t know what happens,” he said. “Here you are the king.”
Kante has reigned supreme in many a midfield, upsetting the aristocracy of the English game. It would be unsurprising if they moved for him. It would serve a dual purpose, strengthening them and weakening Leicester.
“It is much better to stay here one year more and look what happens, then maybe you can go anywhere,” Ranieri said. His logic, from a Leicester perspective, is understandable. But a year can change much, as City’s magnificent upstarts have proved.
Kante has changed their history irrevocably. He has transformed himself into a France international, possibly even a Euro 2016 winner. He may have changed English football if transfer wish-lists are topped by him and similar players, midfielders who shift the focus back from passers, if the destructive are valued above the constructive again.
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