If Jamie Vardy is the bassist, the cadence behind the movement, if Riyad Mahrez is the lead guitar, drifting between subtle melodies and jarring cacophony, then N’Golo Kante is the unsung drummer, pulsating the Leicester City Power Trio with every beat of his relentless heart.
But what of the one-man band, the busker? Idrissa Gueye may have thought he was joining a steadfast chorus when he signed for Tim Sherwood’s FA Cup finalists Aston Villa last summer, a long-established institution impregnable to major discord. But as Gary Lineker phrased it in the Guardian, “something extraordinary is happening in the world of football”. For Gueye – statistically the best defensive midfielder in the Premier League – it’s not quite the fairytale of Leicester’s dynamo.
While neutrals sing along to the Foxes’ chart-topping no.1 ‘Jamie Vardy’s having a party’, all insisting they discovered its Wunderground members before it was cool, Gueye’s Villa earn lukewarm condolences and their marquee signing’s plaudits are quickly escaping without trace.
However, for every blade of grass the Foxes’ Kante has covered for his title-chasing team-mates, Gueye has gone toe-to-toe with the industrious Frenchman and even excelled beyond the standards of his evocative fellow tradesman.
Sir Alex Ferguson placed Kante as the Premier League’s best player “by a long way”, yet while the former Caen midfielder’s rise to prominence is nothing short of astounding – Kante was playing in the lower tiers of French football until just last season – its poeticism is met by caesura, Gueye.
First, to Kante. The combative workman has squeezed the hot air from every would-be playmaker’s backside with ball-winning displays every bit as majestic as his balletic beneficiary, Mahrez. David Silva, Dele Alli, Eden Hazard: Kante has stolen from all of them with ruthless candor.
The Foxes’ hard-fought 1-0 victory over Newcastle on Monday night – which sees them move five points clear of nearest contenders Tottenham Hotspur – was won by Shinji Okazaki’s overhead kick, but safeguarded by Kante.
The pre-match build-up was heightened by the unexpected arrival of Rafael Benitez on Tyneside, but the Leicester story marched on and was even sharpened with the one-goal victory – which is the ‘type of result that makes champions’, so I hear. Live on Sky Sports, this was not the game for Vardy, nor for Mahrez, but a player swarming the ball with the same stubborn intrusion as sand on a perfectly placed beach towel.
Kante was successful with 70% of his tackles during the match, completing all five in Leicester’s defensive third of the pitch, all within 10 yards of the penalty box. In other words, if you get past him once, he will find you.
Kante made four interceptions against the Magpies – only Wes Morgan (five) recorded more – and boasted an impressive 89% passing accuracy, almost all of which were immediately dispatched to the flanks of Mahrez and Marc Albrighton.
It is no secret that Leicester’s threat comes from the wide areas, yet almost all that have tried have failed to prevent their counter-attacking exploits. Kante’s role is not just one of negation, he is a provider. He is the catalyst in Claudio Ranieri’s explosive outfit, pick-pocketing duped ball-dwellers and launching the offensive.
But we all know about Kante don’t we. He’s brilliant. At £5.6million (fee via Daily Mail) he’s the signing of the season, although Dimitri Payet may have something to say about that. But could even someone of Kante’s lion stature have emerged from the barren desert that is Villa Park?
At £9m (via Daily Mail), Gueye was no snip. He actually cost more than any player previous manager Paul Lambert had been able to sign before Sherwood’s energetic arrival. But then Lille midfielder Gueye came with proven performances over a number of seasons in Ligue 1, including a championship win with the club in his first season as a regular in 2010-11.
Villa have been bad for too long. Even their most loyal fans will testify to that. However, while Villa sit bottom of the league, nine points adrift of safety, they have a player topping almost every index for a defensive midfielder.
For a team with -36 goal difference, having scored seven goals less than any other team and conceded a whopping 58 times in 30 games, boasting Gueye’s statistics is quite remarkable. It’s enough to make you consider how far gone they would have been without him.
The 26-year-old has won 93 tackles in his 28 appearances in the top flight, three less than Kante (though the Leicester man has played two games more) and more than any other Premier League player.
In Villa’s recent 3-1 defeat to Everton, Gueye completed eight tackles and six interceptions, while also completing the game with 83% passing accuracy. His distribution was also far more penetrative than Kante’s – making three key passes in the final third of the pitch.
While Kante has received heaps of praise from pundits alike about his rate of interceptions, Gueye continues to outscore him. Kante (126) has recorded 29 more than any other Premier League player, barring Gueye (129).
Against Swansea, Gueye made 11 out of 11 successful interceptions, helping Villa keep the score down to 1-0. While Kante is the protector, it seems Gueye is the damage control.
It could be argued that Gueye, in such a poor side, simply has more challenges to make. However, the almost indistinguishable data between the players suggests their teams’ incomparable results are based more on factors beyond their control. Both players average six defensive actions per game, Kante (82%) is slightly below Gueye’s passing accuracy (85%), though the former has created two more chances in the league this season. Still, for two clubs at opposite ends of the table the margins are minimal.
Had Gueye signed for Leicester rather than Villa would the Foxes have enjoyed the same success? Similarly if Kante was placed in between the two lines of skittish attack and obsequious defence in claret and blue, would he have had any differing impact on their fortunes?
Villa, ever-present in the top-flight since 1987, European Cup winners in 1982, and Leicester, who but for an ostrich-speed escape would be playing in the Championship, are two clubs about to embark into the unknown. Kante will scale new heights – the Champions League, a (possible) Premier League champion – and Gueye will enter a period of uncertainty – rescued by another top-flight club or face the prospect of lower-league English football.
Most argue that the league is the best indicator of how good a football team is. ‘Over 38 games, you’ll end up where you deserve to end up’, or something along those lines. But it seems it remains a little more arbitrary for football players.
Still, every hero needs a Villan.