For the second time in recent weeks, N’Golo Kante won a two-horse race on Monday. Having already beaten Chelsea team-mate Eden Hazard to the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Player of the Year prize, the France international was announced as the winner of the Football Writers’ Association’s (FWA) equivalent award, with Hazard named as runner-up and Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli finishing in third place.
It has been another outstanding campaign for Kante, who is on the verge of winning his second Premier League title in as many years in English football – Chelsea require just two wins from their final four matches to get their hands on the championship crown. Having been the engine behind Leicester City’s extraordinary triumph under Claudio Ranieri last term, the 26-year-old has arguably taken his game to even greater heights since swapping the King Power Stadium for Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2016.
Antonio Conte initially fielded Kante as an anchorman in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Oscar and Nemanja Matic deployed ahead of him in the engine room. The ex-Caen star made a decent fist of the role, but he was noticeably more constrained and inhibited than he had been at Leicester and did not look like an entirely natural fit for the position.
The most defining moment of this Premier League season came in the 55th minute of Chelsea’s visit to Arsenal in late September. With his team trailing by three goals to nil, Conte introduced Marcos Alonso in place of Cesc Fabregas and switched to a three-man backline, which gave the Blues a more solid foundation and allowed them to keep the score respectable at the Emirates.
That was enough to persuade the former Juventus and Italy head coach to stick with the 3-4-2-1 formation in Chelsea’s next encounter, a trip to the KCOM Stadium to lock horns with promoted Hull City. Conte’s men ran out comfortable 2-0 winners in that match, and then proceeded to emerge victorious from each of their subsequent 12 top-flight outings between the start of October and the end of December. Having been eight points shy of the summit of the standings after their loss to Arsenal, Chelsea found themselves six clear at the top on New Year’s Eve.
Wing-backs Alonso and Victor Moses thrived in the new configuration, while David Luiz looked like a different player to the one who was so widely mocked in his first spell at Stamford Bridge. Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez proved so dangerous for opponents as inside forwards, and Diego Costa led the line brilliantly throughout the first half of the campaign.
Perhaps the chief beneficiary of the shift in shape, though, was Kante. Now playing in a two-man midfield, the France international was unleashed and better equipped to play his natural game, which involves closing down opponents high up the pitch. His incredible energy and lung power has allowed him to cover vast swathes of ground in every game he has played in, while the fact that Chelsea have so rarely been overrun in midfield despite regularly fielding one man fewer in the centre of the park is testament to Kante’s quality.
“N’Golo Kante could not be a more deserving winner of English football’s most prestigious individual award,” said FWA chairman Patrick Barclay when the midfielder was revealed as this year’s victor.
“In the view of some FWA members, he would have been a worthy recipient last season for his contribution to Leicester’s title success, but the almost unbroken excellent form of Chelsea since he changed clubs has left little room for further debate. Considering the competition of Eden Hazard and others from Chelsea in particular, this is a great achievement.”