“I wanted to put Dimitri Payet in the middle, so that meant I had to take off one of my midfielders. I could not do that with Kante – you know why.”
Didier Deschamps knew he could stop talking and everybody in the room would just nod; they had all just watched N’Golo Kante produce a performance eclipsed only by that of the sensational Dimitri Payet. Statistically, he had contributed the most passes, the most tackles, the most interceptions, the most distance covered of anybody on the pitch, but to the naked eye he was simply phenomenal, playing with grace, ease, intelligence and a healthy dose of aggression.
Three months ago Kante had not played a minute in a France shirt; now he simply cannot be substituted. Instead, in the opening game of Euro 2016, Deschamps hooked the superstar said to be worth £80m as the “discreet, quiet” (Deschamps’ words) man who cost Leicester just £5.6m stayed on the pitch. And nobody suggested that he had made the wrong decision. Paul Pogba had shown glimpses of vision but there was not nearly enough substance: No tackles, no key passes, no complaints when he was substituted.
Now there are insistent rumours that Pogba will not start France’s second game against Albania, with Deschamps seeing the presumably Madrid-bound midfield phenomenon as the obvious fall guy as he ponders a 4-2-3-1. Not disciplined enough to play in a withdrawn role, not dynamic enough to play as a No. 10, the French coach clearly does not see the Juventus man as his heir apparent. When asked to be effusive on the qualities of the dauphin of his talented French side ahead of Euro 2016, Deschamps was tellingly reluctant.
“People expect too much of him because he has above-average technique,” he told UEFA’s website. Above average? This is the player Zinedine Zidane tipped to “become one of the best players ever”.
Deschamps continued: “He’s not there to make the crowd rise every time he touches the ball. I’ve told him that sometimes he needs to play in a neutral way. He’s a midfielder, not a No 10.”
Contrast that with his comments on Kante and you can immediately see why Deschamps has fallen in love with a personality and player uncannily built in his own image. As Deschamps said: “Everything looks simple and easy with Kante. And I know that it is not always easy, I have played sometimes at the same position. He is a discreet man, he is quiet but he is here. And he always smiles.”
In one corner, the precocious talent who has openly said he wants to be a better player than Pele or Diego Maradona. In the other, a discreet, humble man who had recently earned promotion from Ligue 2 when Pogba was being named the best young player at the 2014 World Cup. One tries the improbable while the other consistently pulls off the probable. One is apparently now a luxury for his country while the other is indispensable.
“You have a fixation on Paul,” said Moussa Sissoko when quizzed by French journalists about Pogba’s contribution against Romania. Like the English with Wayne Rooney, French journalists certainly have their cause célèbre. But the manager? He has a fixation on N’Golo.