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How N'Golo Kante Became Premier League Giant

He may be just 5ft 6½in, but N'Golo Kante is a giant of the Premier League.

He is also the best midfielder in the world right now, according to Chelsea and England great Frank Lampard.

Kante was instrumental in Leicester's astonishing Premier League triumph last year and has been so effective for Chelsea this season that Eden Hazard said lining up alongside him was like "playing with twins".

Since signing Kante in July, the west London club have gone from a mid-table finish to 10 points clear at the top. Without him, Leicester are six points off the relegation zone having sacked title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri.

The 26-year-old France midfielder is energetic, adept at stopping the opposition, and arguably the most important player in the Premier League. He is also hot favourite to win numerous end-of-season awards.

But what shaped him? What makes him so good? And are Premier League academies trying to to produce the Kantes of the future?

'He went to training on his push scooter'

Kante was 24 when Steve Walsh brought him to England for £5.6m in the summer of 2015.

By that stage he had spent a decade at JS Suresnes in Paris, had two seasons in the French lower leagues for Boulogne and another two years at Caen, winning promotion to Ligue 1.

By the time Kante was helping Caen consolidate their top-flight status in what would be his final season in France, Walsh had seen enough.

Now the director of football at Everton, he had a similar role at Leicester and by 2015 was in the midst of a long campaign to persuade Ranieri to sign Kante.
 Photos of Kante playing for numerous junior teams dotted around the clubhouse at Suresnes

Ranieri wasn't so sure - he wondered if Kante lacked the size needed for the rigours of the Premier League - but every time Walsh walked past the Italian in the corridor at the club's Belvoir Drive training ground, he would whisper "Kante, Kante".

The battle for recognition, the need to persuade others of what he has to offer, is nothing new to Kante. In fact, it probably defined his formative years.

Nobody at JS Suresnes - a modest club on the western outskirts of Paris, not far from the Parc des Princes - seems exactly sure of when the tiny kid first appeared, whether it was 1999 or 2000.

He turned up on his own one day - indeed nobody at the club remembers seeing his parents in the decade he played for them.

His parents had come from Mali in 1980 and Kante grew up in a small flat in the district of Rueil-Malmaison, close to where Suresnes play. Kante's sister is in the youth system at the club.

Kante was as quiet and unassuming on that day as every other throughout his time there - but there was something about him. Piotr Wojtyna coached him for years and the Pole was always impressed by both his athleticism and ability to learn.

"He was very receptive to coaching - with tactical information or positioning, where to be on the field," Wojtyna told BBC Sport.

"He always listened very carefully and the decisions he made on the pitch were very intelligent. I always put him with the weakest kids because his efforts counted for double."

Former Everton defender Sylvain Distin and Nottingham Forest winger Armand Traore also played for Suresnes, but neither were there anywhere near as long as Kante.

There is a feeling around Paris that Suresnes is a club that has its most talented players pinched by others - but not where Kante is concerned.

Suresnes is close to Paris St-Germain, but they missed him. So did Rennes, Lorient and Sochaux. The French national academy at Clairefontaine wasn't interested either.

Suresnes' deputy manager Pierre Ville thinks he knows why. "It was because he was a little guy, not spectacular. He did not play for himself, he played for the team," he said.

Photos from his time there show so clearly just how small he was, but eventually he got a move to struggling second-tier club Boulogne, 160 miles from Paris on the northern French coast. He initially joined the reserve team, the move apparently helped by Suresnes' president having a good contact at Boulogne, but at last, here was his chance.

When he arrived, he became a team-mate of current Brentford defender Maxime Colin, deputising for him at right-back. He started out in the reserve side and by the time he made his first-team breakthrough he was playing in midfield and his team had been relegated to the third tier of French football.

But, by then, Colin had seen enough to know the club had signed someone special
 Pierre Ville (left) and Piotr Wojtyna both talk fondly about the Kante they remember at Suresnes

"One day we did a running test. You needed to run at your maximum and it was him who killed the test," Colin told BBC Sport. "He kept running after everyone had stopped, going around the track.

"Month after month, people started to see that N'Golo was a really good player.

"I remember seeing him going to the supermarket in France with his little bag and his push scooter - he wants to do everything himself. Boulogne was very hilly but he would turn up to training on his scooter. If you offer him a lift, most of the time he says 'no I will go by myself'. That's why he is so strong mentally, he came from really low and did all this by himself."

Perhaps wisely, Kante eventually bought himself a car but he remains unchanged. Uninterested in displaying his wealth, he now drives a Mini to training at Chelsea.

Kante says his time at Boulogne gave him the belief he could make it as a professional footballer - and when he left for Caen in 2013, he was about to take another significant step on his journey.

He played in all 38 games as they won promotion to the top flight. The following year he was a mainstay of the side that consolidated their position in Ligue 1. That season, he won the ball back more than any other player in Europe.

Walsh was about to start the process of persuading Ranieri to sign him. Kante eventually joined Leicester on the same day Crystal Palace paid a reported £7m for striker Connor Wickham.

'It was like being ambushed'

He has been called a "machine" and a "mighty mouse", and described as your worst nightmare.
The stats speak for themselves. Since he arrived in the Premier League, he has made more tackles and interceptions than any other player. Only five players have covered more distance than Kante in the English top flight since his debut.
He doesn't seem to get injured. For a player of his position he picks up few yellow cards and has not been sent off since arriving in England.

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