A participant at a company retreat that I attended during the week asked me an interesting question: ‘when a team has won something and become successful, what does it do to sustain it and to keep winning?’
It was a pertinent question because the man that asked it needed to situate my possible response within the context of the organisation he works for that has achieved remarkable success and needed to sustain that tradition.
I really had no simple or single answer to his question. In my world, seen through the lens of football, winning and losing, success and failure, are Siamese twins, they go together on a rollercoaster.
Of course, there is no single infallible formula to succeed or to sustain success. The presence of the human factor makes nonsense of extrapolations in the matter of winning and losing, as some extraneous factors always intervene to swing the pendulum one way or the other.
The most successful football team in the world in the past decade is Barcelona, yet it has lost and won many matches and trophies. Indeed, it has won almost as many trophies as it lost during that period, yet it remains the team with probably the most established tradition of winning in the world.
Lionel Messi has also probably been the biggest single factor in establishing that success story. Take him out of the team and Barcelona may not be the same again.
As I mention Messi I am thinking about another player now. A picture of a young unassuming football player comes into focus on my radar screen. He is currently playing some of the best football in Europe. The young man of African descent, representing France and adorning the blue shirt of Chelsea this season is N’Golo Kante.
Like Messi, he is an enigma, quiet, unobtrusive, not a showman, totally devoid of the characteristic air of flamboyance and, sometimes, arrogance often associated with sports superstars. He is doing an incredible job for Les Bleu.
Incidentally, this is a repeat performance. He did it also for Leicester City last season. He is establishing a tradition of success wherever he goes.
N’golo Kante is quietly going about the business of winning matches for Chelsea with an almost unflappable coolness and calmness that have convinced me that here, probably, is the most valuable player in the Chelsea line-up this season; a great example of a team player in modern football. Should Chelsea win the PL, as they are poised to do already, he will deserve the highest award in the club with his hard work and critical contributions in every single match.
The first lesson I learnt in my unofficial book of coaching is that ‘you do not change a winning team’. But we all know that the same set of players are never always available in a team due to injuries, suspensions, transfers, retirement, etc. So, the statement above is really subjective, it cannot stand the test of reality, it is not an infallible rule, yet it remains a useful guide for coaches.
Two seasons ago Leicester City were struggling at the base of the English Premiership to escape relegation. The next season, for the first time in their history, they became champions of the PL, a feat considered almost impossible considering their pedigree, meagre investment, size, followership, resources, reputation and tradition. Yet they won the biggest trophy in English football.
Nine months after that stupendous achievement, although the league still has some ways to go to the end of the season, Leicester City are back again struggling at the doorsteps of relegation. Their revered coach, Claudio Raneiri, awarded best coach of the year by Fifa and the English FA, was sacked a few weeks ago for poor results with more or less the same team, minus one major player.
That’s what went wrong – ‘the minus-one-player’. That’s why the team could not sustain their winning streak of last season.
That was the basis of my response to the participant who asked a question at the retreat. I told him: ‘to sustain success and build a tradition of winning, do not change a winning team’.
That’s exactly what Leicester City did not do. They changed a winning team. They let N’Golo Kante go!
The moment he left, Leicester City started to struggle. The moment he joined another previously struggling team, Chelsea, the team stabilised and has now climbed up the rung of the PL table to an almost unassailable height.
Looking very closely, both situations are influenced by N’Golo Kante.
He was the main but quiet anchor of Leicester City’s success, not taking anything away from the very significant contributions of his other teammates Vardy, Rahmez, Blackwater, and all the others that also worked hard and developed a team spirit that carried them to the top. But Kante was the key that brought out the best of the team.
That is exactly what he has now become in Chelsea – the key to their current success. Check the records of Chelsea’s matches this season and find out what happened to the team every time Kante did not play for one reason or the other.
He has become to Chelsea what Messi has been to Barcelona for well over a decade.
N’golo Kante is a one-man fighting machine, one tree that makes a forest in any club he plays for.
In my reckoning he already deserves, still many weeks to the end of the season, the award of PL Player of the Year.