Playing it Simple: N’Golo Kanté and the Unfair Pedestal of Player of the Year

As a youth coach, the one phrase I’ve banned my players from saying is, “Play it simple.”

It irritates me to no end. In the United States, we are consistently assaulted with the mentality that simple is better. Why? While we could point to some long-ago American democratic principle of labor, realistically, we love things that are easy to understand. Creativity? Imagination? Initiative? Consistently served with a side of derision and doubt. When faced with the difficultly of complexity, it’s much easier to dismiss it as decadent rather than actually trying to understand its importance. This kind of approach is dangerous in that it fetishizes the uncomplicated into a sort of unpretentious romanticism, in the long term, leaving very little room for improvement. Football is not simple. The world is not simple. ISIS can’t be defeated in 30 days. Hating immigrants isn’t a legitimate form of economic policy, and a new manager won’t stabilize Arsenal in a year. While possibly facile parallels themselves, it’s not much of an assumption to imagine general reverberations infiltrating such a universal game. As the world transitions, football inevitably follows.

Nothing epitomizes this simplicity like the #6, a Premier League commodity in demand like never before. Watch Coquelin, Cattermole, Romeu, and Dier- you understand their role within minutes. Led by the bellwether N’Golo Kanté, he has picked up almost every individual Player of the Year trophy this season. And he deserves it. In a league of selfies, hair gel and neon boots, Kanté represents a romanticized sort of old-school Superman. A no-frills, seemingly good person whose main strength is that he consistently makes the right decision. At his best, Kanté’s athleticism operates as a rare form of ability, forever in the perfect place at the right time, allowing the brilliant Hazard and Pedro to fulfill their individual desires on the ball. He really is a fantastic player, and without a doubt, instrumental in his back-to-back titles. That’s not the issue.

Pogba’s become famous for his radical hair styles

In the same breadth we praise him, Kanté’s growing reputation as a player has become a sort of unfair trap. “Why can’t every player work like Kanté,” the pundits ask as he wins the ball yet gain. His uncomplicated style has almost become a sort of virtue, unfairly wielded as a sword of misguided superiority to fight the urbane. Ozil and Pogba? Pair of bottlers. Maybe if they spent less time on flicks and haircuts, they’d play better. Guardiola with his fancy ball-players and Juego de Posicion? Classic pseudo-intellectual fraud. All could use a good dose of Kanté. Now as the best player in the biggest league in the world, Kanté’s stock will be at its most visible. You can just imagine thousands of coaches across the world telling their players, “Ah cut out that fancy crap, you’ll never see the Player of the Year doing it.” And that’s a problem.

While every player and team could learn from Kanté, his style shouldn’t be used as a weapon to attack a difficult pass or poor game from Pogba. I wouldn’t expect the Chelsea man to score a swerving half-volley in the same way I don’t expect Pogba to develop an acute awareness of defensive positioning and then grow a third lung. All are gifts beyond the normal scope of player development. More so, it’s harder for form to fluctuate when your duty consists of tackles and six-yard passes. And that’s by no means a knock on importance of defensive players. It’s just a different role. Yet on match programs, sports websites, and especially social medias, we consistently see the merits of defensive players used against gifted attackers as if they were a legitimate form of correlation. Kanté has never been criticized for lacking Ozil’s vision. So why do we criticize Ozil for lacking bite in the tackle? Probably because its relatable, and therefore, easier to discuss. In reality, however, it’s a faulty contrapositive that serves only to widen the already increasing gap between how football is discussed and actually played. Yet, every week, we see this simple brand of conservatism played out all across the Premier League.

N'golo Kanté
N’Golo Kanté won both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year award

Perhaps a reaction to the short-termist approach regulating results, it feels as if few clubs are looking beyond the next game, so they don’t risk creative players or a difficult system that could potentially offer greater success in the future. In the top-four Guardiola and Klopp are often criticized for having longer-term strategies at odds with the status quo, while, outside of the top seven, with perhaps the possible inclusion of Southampton and Bournemouth, temporary survival looks to be the main goal. At times, Aitor Karanka and Tony Pulis seemed to be locked in a never-ending battle to fit more defensive-minded players on the field, while David Moyes remains allergic to purchasing players that “don’t get stuck in.” It’s a strategy with serious consequences for league and country. Unlike intelligence, creativity, and their accompanying improvement, in their singular forms, simplicity and work rate are not always a merit to be promoted.

So while Kanté remains a fantastic player, using him as some sort Premier League standard to strive towards or judge others isn’t just misleading, it’s wrong. His unique skillset is a gift as rare as Hazard or Mahrez and nothing more. Football is hard. Life is complex. Appreciate those like Kanté that make it look easy, but recognize that just because something is simple, relatable, or even Player of the Year, it’s not inherently better.

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