Kanté made his senior professional debut with Boulogne in 2012, appearing as a substitute in one Ligue 2 match, and played an entire season in the third division the following year. After that he joined Ligue 2 side Caen on a free transfer, finished third and won promotion to Ligue 1. He stayed with the club for one more year.
Born in Paris to Malian parents, Kanté began his career at the age of eight at JS Suresnes in the western suburbs of the capital, remaining there for a decade. According to assistant manager Pierre Ville, Kanté remained outside the radar of big teams because of his small stature and selfless styles of play. He was rejected from the academy at Clairefontaine during this time.[clarification needed] Through the contacts of Suresnes' president in 2010, he joined the reserve team of Boulogne. He made his professional debut in the last game of the Ligue 2season on 18 May 2012, a 1–2 home defeat for his already relegated team to Monaco, replacing Virgile Reset for the final 11 minutes.
In 2013, he joined Ligue 2 side Caen and played all 38 games in his first season as they came third in Ligue 2, earning them promotion to Ligue 1. In his second match on 9 August, he scored his first goal to equalise in a 2–1 win at Laval; he levelled again with his other goal of the campaign on 11 April 2014, in a 3–2 win at Istres.
The following season, Kanté played 37 games as Caen remained in the top flight; his one absence was suspension through being sent off in a 0–1 home loss to Rennes on 30 August. Three weeks earlier, he scored their first goal of the season in a 3–0 win at Evian. He recovered the ball more times over the season than any other player in Europe.
He earned much praise and many plaudits for his consistently impressive displays for Leicester, and was widely considered to be a major factor in the club's excellent form as they went on to win the 2015–16 Premier League, consistently making a high number of tackles and interceptions. In April, he was one of four Leicester players named in the PFA Team of the Year. By the end of the season, Kanté had managed 175 tackles (31 more than any other player) and 157 interceptions (15 more than any other player), topping the defensive stats at the end of the 2015–16 Premier League season.
On 16 July 2016, Kanté signed for Chelsea for a reported fee of £32 million. After signing a five-year contract with the club, Kanté said: "I am so happy to have signed for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. It’s a dream come true for me." Arsenal allegedly backed out of the deal due to agent fees involved which totaled more than £10 million and instead opted to sign Granit Xhaka. Due to disputes arising from the sharing of agent fees, Kanté was subject to death threats, a claim which he later denied. Kanté was given the number 7 shirt, left vacant since the exit of Ramires in January. According to Football Leaks, Chelsea offered to transfer a part of the salary into an offshore account to avoid taxes. Kanté refused with his lawyer stating in an email: "N'golo is flexible, he simply wants a normal salary."
On 15 August 2016, Kanté made his competitive debut in their season opener against West Ham United. Despite picking up a yellow card in the first three minutes of the game, he shone as the game went on, to help Chelsea to a 2–1 victory. Three months after his move to London, he faced his former side, Leicester City for the first time, and was Man of the Match in a 3–0 victory. On 23 October, he scored his first goal for Chelsea in a 4–0 home win against Manchester United.
Kanté was nominated for the Ballon d'Or in October 2017. He would go on to gain an FA Cup winners medal, appearing for the whole 90 minutes in a 1–0 victory over Manchester United in the final on 19 May 2018. BBC Sport awarded him the man of the match award.
He signed a new five-year contract at Chelsea on 23 November 2018 making him Chelsea's highest paid player. Kanté scored the first goal of Chelsea's 2–1 EFL Cup semi-final second leg win at home to Tottenham Hotspur. The score was tied 2–2 on aggregate at the end of 90 minutes, with Chelsea winning the shootout 4–2. Kanté scored on his 300th club appearance, a 2–2 home draw against Burnley on 22 April.
Kanté started the 2019 Premier League campaign from the bench as Chelsea suffered a 4–0 away defeat to Manchester United. He has been out for almost a month including missing the Champions League opener against Valencia because of ankle injury. Kanté scored the only goal in a 1–2 loss against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on 22 September 2019. His first goal of the season was nominated for the Premier League Goal of the Month award along with his Chelsea teammate, Fikayo Tomori. Kanté marked his 150th Chelsea appearance with a goal against Manchester City, in a 1–2 away defeat on 23 November. Later that month Kanté revealed he decided against moving to PSG and said, "‘Sometimes we do not necessarily know where we want to go, but we know what we have." He said he felt good in London and had faith in the project at Chelsea.
In May 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kanté chose to train from home after Chelsea resumed training on site. The club supported his stance, even if he would miss the rest of the season.
After Kanté's match-winning performances in Chelsea's run up to the final of the 2020–21 UEFA Champions League season, several pundits proclaimed him as the apparent successor to former France and Chelsea player Claude Makélélé, who is considered to be one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
Born to Malian parents, Kanté was approached by Mali ahead of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations having not played for France in any of their age group teams. Kanté declined on the basis that he was still trying to establish himself in Ligue 1. Mali issued a further invitation to Kanté in January 2016, although he stated that he was still undecided about which national team to represent should he get an invite from France.
A dynamic, diminutive and disciplined player, Kanté is known for his relentless energy and excellent ball-winning abilities as a box-to-box midfielder in the centre of the pitch. This is attributed to his strong positional sense, off the ball movement, and ability to read the game. His game is considered as, or tasked with, doing the "dirty work", which includes running, fetching, and retrieving possession; to benefit team-mates so they can be put in goal scoring positions. He was a late bloomer and by the age of 21 had only made one senior appearance in the second tier of French football.
Although he is predominantly known for his tactical awareness, intelligence, anticipation, and the defensive aspect of his game — namely his ability to tackle and regain possession, intercept passes, and block shots — he is also capable of playmaking from inside his own half and is an efficient passer on the counter-attack, thus allowing him to start attacking plays after winning back the ball. He is also quick up and down the pitch and often makes late attacking runs, which even allows him to finish off goalscoring chances for his team on occasion. He made the most tackles in Europe's top leagues in back-to-back seasons (14–15 and 15–16). Under Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri, Kanté also underwent a further technical and tactical development, and was deployed in a more advanced midfield role, becoming a more complete midfielder as a result, who was also effective in possession, as demonstrated by his ability to carry the ball forward and transition from defence to attack. He had previously been used in this more advanced role with Leicester, as well as being deployed on the left flank on occasion. In his first 150 Premier League appearances he totaled 92 wins, 28 losses and 10 goals. In five years, in the Premier League, he has yet to receive a red card.
In 2021, Tuchel restored Kanté in a "double six" role to great effect, predominantly on the right-hand side partnered by Jorginho or Mateo Kovačić, with defensive and forward ball-carrying duties. Kanté was effective in both disrupting an opponent's possession play in the final-third as well as springing swift counter-attacks from the midfield.
In April 2016, Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Kanté as the best player in the Premier League, while the following year, former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard labelled him the best central midfielder in the world. His World Cup winning midfield partner, Paul Pogba, said he could outrun an entire team of 11 players. His league-title winning manager, Claudio Ranieri, often joked about him having "batteries" and said: "One day, I'm going to see you cross the ball and then finish the cross with a header yourself."Thomas Tuchel, with whom Kanté won the 2021 Champions League, said, "If you play with N'Golo you have half a man more; this is unique. It is a pleasure to be his coach, he is a big gift for me, a guy so, so humble and who is such a big helper on the pitch." Off the pitch, Kanté's former Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, praised his work ethic and constant willingness to improve. A popular Internet meme that 70% of the planet is covered by water and the rest by the Kanté twins exemplifies his standing among the fans and their recognition of his work ethic and reading of the game.
Kanté is a practising Muslim. He was born in Paris to Malian parents who migrated to France from Mali in 1980. He grew up in a small apartment in Rueil-Malmaison, Hauts-de-Seine. His father died shortly after N'Golo turned 11 and his elder sibling Niama died of a heart attack before the 2018 World Cup.
At the start of his professional career at Boulogne, he commuted to training on a kick scooter and as of 2018 drove a Mini Hatch—his first purchase in England because he found it easy to learn to drive in. Kanté is aware of his public perception as a shy and private individual, but also said that stories about him by current and former teammates, like Jamie Vardy, were often exaggerated.
Kanté's nickname is "NG," and outside of football, he enjoys playing tennis. His go-to karaoke song is Vegedream's "Ramenez la coupe à la maison". During his initiation at Chelsea, which he described as a "stressful moment," his teammates said he was not loud enough. His favourite dish is thieboudienne because of his mother's cooking.