Tiemoue Bakayoko showing positive signs at AC Milan
Background Image: Gilbert Sopakuwa, CC by 2.0
Disaster, flop, boondoggle. That pretty sums Tiemoue Bakayoko’s pathetic slump from grace in the last year. Heralded as Europe's most-rounded midfielder, the colossal Frenchman has despaired. At Chelsea, then AC Milan. Faithful dreaded his name. Not anymore, however. At least among some section of San Siro co-tenants, thanks to hard work, dedication and a bit of misfortune to teammates.
Bakayoko would have plenty of regrets in his life. Perhaps the greatest would be leaving AS Monaco for Chelsea in 2017. A career that was flying to space seemingly crashed before take-off. When the Frenchman realised, he was already feeble - battling with confidence, fright and unwelcoming fans. All Blues supporters saw was Fernando Torres in black and white with painted hair.
At the Principality, Bakayoko showed immense promise. Together with a bunch of supremely talented youngsters, they conquered France. If not for Bayern Munich, they may have captured the continent too. Leonardo Jardim’s hedonistic brand of attacking football appealed. In a team blessed with a glut of offensive players, the 24-year-old provided balance.
An excellent hard-running athlete, Bakayoko flaunted all the traits required to make it in the Premier League. He could read the game, throw himself at tackles, intercept and move the ball out quite calmly with his feet. His composure, pace and trickery gave him an extra edge. As well as strength, he possessed the requisite physical attributes.
Barely six months in England, those qualities vanished. Perhaps the midfielder misplaced them during one of his fun trips to the French Riviera. The result was an utterly clueless, obscure player. The Blues’ hierarchy simply held until a potential suitor comes to town. Fortunately, AC Milan did, they obliged.
Without the extra pressure of any upfront payment, Bakayoko was expected to regain his best form in Italy. At least, there wasn't the annual quadruple dummy set by Roman Abramovic. After all, Gennaro Gattuso had long yearned for an enforcer, capable of bullying opposition. It took just 10 minutes for Bakayoko to fail that test.
With performances like this, Marina may regret putting a £35 million buy out clause on Bakayoko's loan contract...
Summoned for his debut to shore up thin a midfield against Napoli in August. The Rossoneri had squandered a two-goal advantage, hopping on the 24-year-old to return with a point. Bakayoko, however, seemed like a rabbit caught in headlights. Perhaps, the language barrier played a part. Dries Mertens didn't mind, hitting the winner with less than 10 minutes left. Gattuso wasn't pleased.
"He must learn some basic things like how to receive the ball. He must learn the right position of his body and one week is not enough to fix flaws."
Gattuso's assessment went a bit overboard but was the harsh reality on the ground. Bakayoko had to come terms that he was no longer that ‘next big thing’. No one cared about his past. From then onward, the Frenchman struggled to make any meaningful impact, appearing four times as a sub. However, injuries to Lucas Biglia and Giacomo Bonaventure left Gattuso with no option.
Bakayoko has started and impressed in Milan’s last four matches. With a combination of physique and technique, he is gradually winning over the faithful who even clamoured for his early return to England. Per Calciomercato, over the last three games, he won more duels than any other Milan player with 26, while recovering possession on 24 occasions, again the most of any of his teammates. Gattuso has joined his fan club.
“Even in the game against Genoa, I liked him. He is a player who has physical strength and at the moment he feels confident and is giving us a good hand.”
Bakayoko is reaping from a tactical tweak at Milan. He doesn't have to run into bodies as he used to in the 3-5-2 or 3-4-4 under Antonio Conte. And his remarkable bond with Franck Kessie both on and off the pitch is showing in his game too.
While there is still plenty of room for improvement, perhaps the opportunity to play regularly, get back to full fitness and sharpness as well as having the confidence of his manager would drag the best out of him. Don't be surprised if Maurizio Sarri gets on the phone pretty soon...