A footballer’s route to the summit of the Premier League can take varying guises, but few have been quicker or more unexpected than N’Golo Kante’s, the Frenchman who has become one of the symbols of this season’s remarkable Leicester City story.
On May 16, 2014, Kante completed just his third full season as a professional footballer, all of which had been at second-tier level.
In his first season after moving from Boulogne, Kante was part of the Caen side which had earned promotion to Ligue 1, with his diligent midfield displays and powerful presence proving vital for Patrice Garande’s men. He wasn’t tipped for the top by any means, and you wouldn’t have found him on any “ones-to-watch” lists, but he was obviously doing a good job.
Contrast that with the hype around Aaron Ramsey, once a young prodigy who needed just 16 second-tier games for Cardiff City to prove to everyone that he was destined for great things.
He’s had a few wobbles along the way, but on May 17, 2014—a day after Kante and his Caen team-mates celebrated promotion—he ended the best season of his professional career by scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final at Wembley, thereby ending the Gunners’ nine-year trophy drought.
The pair have traversed different paths to get here, but as Arsenal and Leicester line up at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday for what can legitimately be described as the biggest game of the Premier League season so far, how the duo perform will have a huge bearing on the result.
With Francis Coquelin likely to be reintroduced into the Arsenal team alongside Ramsey in midfield—thereby offering a better protective screen for the defenders than Mathieu Flamini—the Welshman will be looking to make the type of box-to-box runs which led Steven Gerrard to recently describe him to BT Sport as the best midfielder in the Premier League when stationed centrally (h/t the Independent).
Ramsey, who was excellent in last weekend’s victory at Bournemouth, has flourished since taking up a more central role in the wake of Santi Cazorla’s injury in November, getting forward and generally creating a more mobile link between midfield and attack.
Yet on Sunday, he’ll find the very considerable presence of Kante blocking his way as he attempts to do that, with the dynamic Leicester midfielder one of the best players this season at tracking the runs of his opponents and putting out fires all over the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old has been one of the best players this season full stop.
Obviously he’ll have the threat of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and others deal with as well, but in a sense they are more obvious problems, and things that Claudio Ranieri would have been drilling into Kante, his impressive midfield partner Danny Drinkwater and their team-mates all week.
But Ramsey possesses the ability to break into the box from deep, something that an out-of-sorts and largely immobile Yaya Toure failed to do in Manchester City’s miserable 3-1 defeat against Leicester last weekend.
Both Kante and Drinkwater were superb in that game, but if Ramsey is on form, they will face a much sterner test here—and the key to Arsenal’s chances of a big three points could centre on how many times the Welshman can get ahead of and then beyond that Leicester midfield pairing.
Do it often enough, and he is likely to get on the end of an Olivier Giroud knockdown, a clever Ozil pass or a piece of genius from Sanchez; if he’s not doing it, then that is probably because Kante will have once again put in a very impressive performance in a season which has been full of them.
The pair might have taken very different routes to get here, but the battle of Ramsey vs. Kante has become one of the most important of this Premier League season.