It takes a lot to get fans to like another team’s holding midfielder. You like yours just fine because, when it suits you, you think of yourself as a pragmatist. Sure, it would be wonderful if everybody could play like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona—you say, pointing at the opposing forward whose left PCL your holding mid has just violently endangered—but if you consider it deeply enough, the wonders of the world weren’t built by visionary architects—the opposing forward is now being carried off on a stretcher; is he crying?—so much as workers, men who relied not on some creator-bestowed brilliance but sweat equity and hard-won knowhow. Isn’t that more noble, in a way more romantic than—and now the other team’s holding mid has dragged one of your players down by the hem of his shirt and you can’t believe that isn’t a card. Why do they let that guy on the pitch if he’s not even going to try to play? Might as well fit him with a luchador mask.
On every team, there’s a dirty work quota that needs to be filled, and the bulk of it typically falls to the holding midfielder. He’s the player most likely to collect a yellow for heading off a counterattack with a bear hug, to point at the rolling ball he got a stud to after cleaving through an opponent’s calf, to litigate with the referee the difference between a firm challenge and felony assault. Casemiro, Matić, Gabi, N’Zonzi, Busquets: these are widely loathed players outside of their own home stadia. But everybody likes N’Golo Kanté. He’s small, he’s nice, etc. He’s also exceedingly humble. After the World Cup final, as all the French players were celebrating and posing for photos, N’Zonzi had to step in to make sure Kanté got a moment with the trophy. His diminutive friend had been too shy to ask for himself.
Of course this adorability would be nothing without the way Kanté plays, which constantly reveals his position’s potential for beauty. He’s Busquets without the melodrama, Matić with greater speed and panoramic vision. My favorite thing about him is that there are levels to his spectacularity. He makes difficult tasks look simple, casually chipping a 30-yard ball out to the flank, stepping into a passing lane like he’s boarding a subway car. This is the stuff that you marvel at when you rewatch matches and realize that what he’s doing is easy for him, but it isn’t normal. He covers a lot of ground without you noticing. His instincts and decision-making give him space and time lesser players can’t find. And then there are times when Kanté is exhausting himself. He’s screaming across the pitch like a city ambulance to halt an advancing forward; he’s clenching his tree stump thighs trying to hold off a larger opponent; he’s diving in and elastically winning the ball from a player who thinks he’s got him screened.
His game is not all blue collar strain; it’s not all placid Xavian intellect either. And Kanté will cynically haul somebody down if he needs to. Because that is part of the job too. I imagine he chirps a delicate apology as he kicks the ball a few yards in the wrong direction and jogs back to defend the free kick.
We tend to apply the term gifted to fleet wingers, slippery number tens, strikers who create goals out of nothing. Players about whom there is something magical. Holding midfielders aren’t often complimented this way because their play is generally pretty legible. There isn’t much about Casemiro, excellent as he is, that baffles us. He’s disciplined; he’s a great tackler; he doesn’t mind playing emergency left back when Real Madrid lose the ball and Marcelo is winded near the corner flag. This isn’t to undersell Casemiro, but what makes him one of the best in the world—industry, selflessness, edge—isn’t highly unusual. He just has way more of it than most of his peers.
Kanté is the rare holding midfielder who can credulously be called gifted, but it’s difficult to pin down what that gift is. Grace? Intuition? The ability to do many of the things Casemiro can and some that he can’t while standing a smidge taller than a fire hydrant? Perhaps it’s something that eludes language. You have to watch him, paying special attention, in order to understand.
The completeness of Kanté—the gift he expresses rather than the one he owns—is easier to describe. He’s beloved because he takes an unglamorous position typically held down by bullies and scofflaws and demonstrates, by performing every aspect of the position so well, with a monastic calm masking an intermittent jubilant fury, that the holding midfield role can be elegant, that some essential bastardity isn’t required to master its challenges. And we tend to feel grateful toward athletes who redraw the game’s parameters for us, help us appreciate what we previously couldn’t. We sometimes call them geniuses: a title Kanté would definitely reject, but might deserve.