The role of a defensive midfielder player can be a thankless one. To be successful in the position, a delicate balance between energy, strategy, technique and discipline must be struck. And yet, all but the best at juggling these varying attributes pass under the radar.
N’Golo Kante represents a perfect example. Marseille turned down the chance to move for the then Caen player in the summer of 2015, believing him to be too expensive, yet first at Leicester and now at Chelsea he has developed into one of the finest players in the game, one of the most important members of a France squad that won the World Cup in the summer, no less.
The Blues have become acutely aware of the worth of one of football’s shiest and most understated stars. Paris Saint-Germain were rebuffed in the summer as they tried to move for the apparently tireless 27-year-old.
The Stamford Bridge side were, however, spooked enough by the approach of the Qatari-owned Parisiens to go looking for a replacement.
High up on their list was Lyon’s Tanguy Ndombele, a player largely unheralded outside of his native France, yet one with the heavy burden to bear of being tagged as the heir to the role that Kante now occupies.
Following a blockbuster performance against Manchester City as the Ligue 1 side stunned the English champions 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium a fortnight ago, he only succeeded in raising expectations for what he might achieve.
Aged 21, he has been at Parc OL for little over a year, having emerged first with Amiens, where he helped the minnows win promotion to the top flight. He spent last term at OL on loan but made the move to the Rhone Valley permanent in the summer as Bruno Genesio’s side hastily took advantage of a clause in the agreement that allowed them to sign him for a mere €8 million.
Barely a year on, they were reportedly knocking back offers of €50m from Manchester City. Memphis Depay, Mariano Diaz and Nabil Fekir might have grabbed the spotlight at the forefront of the attack, but those in the know had spotted and appreciated the industrious midfielder who had helped construct the platform from which the stars could shine.
“He’s thoughtful and intelligent,” Genesio said last season. “With the ball, to make the best use of it, he takes in information before anyone else to make the right choice.
“Without the ball, he brings balance to the team. When Nabil Fekir is out of position, he’s there, providing balance, alongside our defensive midfielder Lucas Tousart.
“He’s interesting because he’s one of those players capable of solving tactical problems with his game intelligence.”
Philippe Lemaire, a former scout at Guingamp, who allowed the player to slip through their grasp, put it rather more succinctly.
“He stinks of football,” he told Le Progres. “He is strong and precise. He feels the game. He is capable of creating lightning, to give rhythm to the game, to counterattack but also to press and regain possession.”
The understanding of the game had seen him used previously as a right-back or a right winger at Amiens, while “the position of his heart”, according to former youth team-mate Yoane Wissa, was as a No.10.
It is, however, as a box-to-box player where he has settled at Lyon, and as such, comparing Ndombele to Kante is not truly fair.
Not only is he significantly taller and more obviously athletic, but he is also prepared to carry the ball forward from his own half or take the duty of making an attacking pass, as opposed to simply offloading the responsibility elsewhere.
Indeed, it is to a former Chelsea favourite that Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas chose to compare him: “He reminds me of Michael Essien.”
Ndombele brings a bit of everything to his team. Or almost everything.
“He’s progressed with regards to the volume of his play, taking the initiative and with his use of the ball,” the coach said prior to Tuesday’s clash with Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.
“He must, however, take a final step with his finishing, it’s the only element of the game that he’s lacking to become a very great player. He lacks a little focus in that final touch, but he has the technique to find it. He has to score six or eight goals a season.”
Currently, Ndombele sits on one Lyon goal, having played 56 matches for the club.
“I think a little too much in the moment before shooting,” the player, who has compensated with four assists in eight league matches this season, admitted to Courrier Picard. “I’m working on it and I’m going to improve myself.”
That issue, however, may not be enough to put off Didier Deschamps giving him a first international call on Thursday for France’s forthcoming games against Iceland in a friendly and Germany in a Nations League clash.
He possesses similar versatility to Corentin Tolisso, whose serious knee injury has opened the door for his former club-mate to graduate to the senior international stage for the first time.
There, he will come into contact with Kante as a team-mate, and while their profiles on the field may not be truly similar, in terms of personality away from it, he certainly shares something in common with the notoriously publicity-shy Chelsea man.
“I like to speak on the pitch, I’m not very comfortable with microphones and cameras,” Ndombele admitted. “I know it’s part of the job, but I don’t really like to talk about myself.”
Kante has already shown him the route to success does not need a big media presence, which will suit Ndombele quite nicely in his understated yet vital role.
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