Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has admitted he passed up the opportunity to sign N’Golo Kante long before the midfielder moved to Leicester in the summer.
The 24-year-old has proved to be a superb piece of business by the Foxes and has played a major role in turning Claudio Ranieri’s men from relegation favourites to Barclays Premier League title contenders.
Kante and Leicester travel to Arsenal on Sunday looking to build on their five-point advantage at the summit.
But the French midfielder could have been lining up for the hosts at the Emirates Stadium, had Wenger acted having been recommended the player as a youngster.
“Kante is a huge force in their team,” the Gunners boss said.
“Of course I know him. You look at his career and you will be amazed. Because he played in Suresnes in Paris at the age of nine, 10 years old. After he went to Boulogne as an amateur. They didn’t want to sign him pro.
“After, he went to Caen, and then he came finally to England. But everywhere he has been, he has always adapted to the level where he was.
“One of my best friends in life knows him since he was 10 years old, and he spoke to me about him. We went to watch him and we saw he had quality. But I didn’t know he would come so quickly to England.”
Whereas Wenger was more than aware of Kante’s ability, he conceded Riyad Mahrez was a player he did not know much about before his £400,000 move to Leicester.
The Algeria international has scored 14 league goals this season and has also laid on 10 assists for the title favourites.
“I didn’t know him,” Wenger said.
“He played in the second division in France, so they did extremely well. He has developed very well and today he is one of the dominant players in the Premier League.
“You are disappointed (to miss out on those players), yes, but on the other hand that happens to every club and we have to accept that. Every club faces these kind of things.”
Asked if his small transfer fee could make him one of the most inspired signings ever, Wenger replied: “Yes, but today we live in a strange society.
“You give me that example but if I sign a player for £400,000, before he plays people will say ‘what is that? That is not serious for Arsenal’ – you have to accept it. If you say we signed a player for £40million, they will think he is really good.”
While Kante and Mahrez have come in from abroad to make a name for themselves in the Premier League, the division’s top goalscorer is English born and bred.
Jamie Vardy has notched 18 goals this season and is a near-certainty for Roy Hodgson’s England squad for this summer’s European Championship – a fairytale story for the 29-year-old who spent most of his career at non-league level.
He moved to Leicester for £1million from Fleetwood in 2012 having previously turned out for Stocksbridge Park Steels and FC Halifax.
And Wenger believes Vardy’s hunger comes from those years of trying to make it as a professional while scoring goals much further down the football pyramid.
“The hunger index is sometimes built by the difficulty of realising your dream and developed by that,” he said.
“I believe that is sometimes, when you start at 18 years of age on the red carpet, it can make you think ‘that is normal, that is easy’.
“These kind of players, once they come up, they watched on television the Champions League or Premier League and once they are in there, they are ready for a fight – it develops the hunger.”
Would Wenger take a chance of a non-league talent? He says he would, if he was told the player was worth the risk.
“If a scout comes to convince me that this is a player of exceptional quality at that level, I will take a gamble of course. They (scouts) watch non-league,” he added.
“They (talented players) are out there (in non-league football). And I will tell you there will be more and more down there.
“In the Premier League you will have more and more foreign players and good players will go down and down and down and you will find good players.”