It’s got to the point with the irrepressible N’Golo Kante that he is seen as a unique force in European football, but Antonio Conte doesn’t quite think he’s incomparable. The Chelsea manager can think of a similar player: himself. Conte used to love to run just as much as Kante.
Smiling as he said it, the Italian admitted Kante is “stronger” amid a few differences, and that he hasn’t yet had to treat the French midfielder in the same way one of his old managers did with him. Conte tells the story of when he was at Juventus under the great Giovanni Trapattoni between 1991 and 1994.
“In my career, I remember Trapattoni tried to stop me [running] during training, telling me to go into the changing room because I had to run during the game.
“I wasn’t happy about this! I wanted to stay with my teammates. He’s a great player and he always puts 100% in the game, but also in training.
“I don’t want to stop him.”
Part of that is undoubtedly because Conte personally understands Kante’s willingness, and also because is it is so key to the manager’s game.
“I like a lot these type of players. I was this type of player. And I always appreciated this type of player, with great generosity, great ability to work for the team. I think it’s important to have this type of player if we want to win. Not only great talent, but players who run a lot during a game.
“He’s an example. N’Golo is a fantastic guy, fantastic player, great commitment, great behaviour. A great example.”
Asked whether that made him Conte mark two – sharing much more than just a similarity in their surname – the Chelsea manager wouldn’t quite go that far. A physical force who used to set the pace for his side’s running, the former Italian international generally got further forward.
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“He’s stronger than me,” Conte conceded. “I think I was stronger than him to score goals but, in the other aspects, there is no contest. He is stronger than me.”
The signing of Kante has been seen as one of the key differences between the sensation of this season’s Chelsea title surge and the shambles of last season’s title defence, especially with the way champions Leicester City have gone in the opposite direction, but it would obviously be hugely unfair on Conte to portray it as the main difference.
A huge element in the Italian’s management has been looking to work with players on the training ground and improve their game, and he has done exactly the same with Kante. He hasn’t been someone who has just seen a force of nature and let it be. He has tried to hone it, add more to it, and specifically look to enhance the 25-year-old’s passing.
“I think he has a lot of room to improve in the pass, and to look for the first pass forward,” Conte said. “He can improve on these aspects.
“My own work is always to try and improve my players, and I want to improve my players through work. To work very hard to try and improve them. We are talking about great players. He played very well in the past, last season, with Leicester.
“He’s playing very well also this season with us. We are working on some aspects to try and improve him, to make him a more complete players. But we are playing about a great player already.”
On Monday at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup sixth-round tie against Manchester United, Kante will directly come up against a player seen as potentially great at Old Trafford, but who is still finding his feet there. Paul Pogba was much more expensive than his French international teammate, but hasn’t yet had anything close to the same impact in the Premier League.
Conte oversaw some supreme Pogba performances in Serie A, having been the manager to bring him to Juventus in 2012 and initially bring the midfielder’s game, and has no issue diplomatically talking him up in similar terms.
“We are talking about a top player. A top player in all situations. Also in his commitment in training, trying to improve him, good technique, physically strong, great stamina. We are talking about a top, top player.”
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How the two French players face off could have a big say on how Monday goes. A growing feeling around United is that Pogba needs that first truly complete statement performance and, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic out suspended as Jose Mourinho goes back to his league-leading old club, Stamford Bridge might well be the stage.
It will be up to Kante to cancel him out, then, to suppress that supreme passing ability with his running; to move fast so Pogba can’t move the ball fast; to be the yin to his young.
He is certainly Pogba’s opposite in terms of personality. Whereas the younger United midfielder is so charismatic with hair often as loud as his character, Kante is the quiet man of the Chelsea dressing room.
“Yeah, but he’s a really good guy,” Conte said. “He has always a smile on his face. He’s fantastic, this. You try to talk with him and he’s always smiling. During training sessions he works a lot, but always with a smile. To see this, it’s great for the other players, the staff, for me, the people who work at Chelsea.”
A smiling assassin then?
“No, no. It’s a good smile. Not an assassin’s smile. It’s the smile of a good guy, and he is a really good guy.”
As good as Conte as a player? The manager will willingly concede that, but wants to make him better. He certainly doesn’t want to suppress that energy.