The Revival of Tiémoué Bakayoko
- Bakayoko has gone from zero to hero at AC Milan.
He was a rising star and an integral part of Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco who conquered Ligue 1 and won it in 2016/17. He made his international debut for France in March 2017 to face Luxembourg and Spain after Paul Pogba was injured in training. He was one of the most wanted players in Europe. He then took the next step and joined Chelsea, where he never found a place - or himself.
A lot of skepticism, that was the main feeling around not only the Milan community but the football community in general when Tiémoué Bakayoko sealed a deal to join AC Milan last summer.
The young French midfielder did not impress many people throughout his stint at Chelsea, and the disappointment naturally got increased, given the expectations he had due to his incredible season before the move.
As a contrast to Monaco’s title winning season in Ligue 1, very little went Bakayoko’s way in England. He did have glimpses of absolute class in some performances, but it wasn’t enough to change the narrative.
He had a hard time acclimatizing to the new nature of the league, Chelsea’s system and he most of all had a hard time finding himself on the pitch. Things that were certainties in France suddenly wasn’t anymore.
He couldn’t keep up his concentration and ended up losing the ball constantly due to it. The qualities which made him stand out in France were nowhere to be found and his stand out-effect wasn’t there in the Premier League.
Eventually, many fans started turning on him and it wasn’t long there after that the manager did too.
So, who is Tiémoué Bakayoko?
Bakayoko’s a midfielder who prefers to operate from the DM role, often called a destroyer. Leonardo Jardim has delineated him as “He wins a lot of balls, has good work rate and he brings balance to the team, athletic.
He passes the ball well and wins his duels. Good in tight spaces and driving the ball forwards. He is good at intercepting, tackling, good in aerial duels due to his physicality, and is good at disrupting the opponents’ game. That is the Bakayoko role”.
The boss of the French national team, Didier Deschamps, described Bakayoko as a “complete and athletic midfielder with the ability to manage games and provide good ball circulation within the team”.
His weaker sides are mainly flair and creativity, but given his role and position, those two are perhaps not very relevant and important aspects to his game to improve.
Bakayoko stats per 90 throughout Monaco’s title winning season 16/17
32 games (25 starts)
69 minutes average per game
Shots 35 (on target 11)
Fouls conceded 62
Fouls committed 65
1704 passes (87% successful)
Goals: 3 goals
Assists: 1 assist
5.4 interceptions (Kanté 5.7)
6.2 duels per 90 (60% success rate – Kanté 6.5 with 69% success rate)
4.8 duels (68% success rate - Kanté 1.8 with 49% success rate)
2.4 ball recoveries (Kanté 2.7)
4.6 dribble (83% success rate - Kanté 1.9 with 87% success rate)
2 key passes and 18 through passes (28% success rate) – perhaps not very relevant due to his role.
As demonstrated in the statistics above, Bakayoko’s numbers were comparable to the world elite, so what went wrong?
The most evident factor is that the majority of new players coming to the Premier League struggle with its high intensity.
In Ligue 1, Bakayoko had an extra few seconds to operate with the ball that he suddenly lost in Premier League. To many this might seem easy to adjust to, but in reality, it’s not. An extra few seconds in elite level football can make all the difference.
The same goes for other aspects to the game, as having extra time to find the right positioning, make the right decisions, read the game, ball distribution (even though Bakayoko is pretty quick and incisive in his passing) etc.
This was Bakayoko’s main Achilles heel, and sadly he didn’t get enough time to accustom himself to it before being judged a flop by the footballing world.
Milan’s summer window was trademarked with a clean-cut start mixed with huge ambition, with the new ownership and management with Paolo Maldini and Leonardo now in charge of player recruitment.
Eyebrows were therefore raised when the duo brought in a “failed” Chelsea signing instead of signing somebody else.
His first few months in Italy started out basically the same as his time in England with Chelsea. He particularly seemed to struggled in the 4-3-3 formation Gattuso usually deploys and looked better in a midfield pivot.
At one point it was speculated in the Italian media, the reliable part, that Milan was thinking of terminating the loan and send the Frenchman back to England. He was jeered in October after his bad performances, but instead of taking it badly Bakayoko showed self-awareness and said in an interview short thereafter;
“The whistles don’t please me, but I understand. I hope they applaud me soon. I’ve done some good things, but we’re only at the beginning. I hope to be decisive and help Milan re-enter the top four”.
And that he did. When the squad’s starting regista/DM, Lucas Biglia, got long-term injured during the morning training session on October 31st, 2018 a turning point was reached.
Between then and February Bakayoko was, without overexaggerating, a competitor for MVP every game Milan he played.
He started dominating the midfield. He established balance within the team with his performances at DM, he relieved the defense of a lot of responsibility and he became the reason why his two midfield compatriots, Lucas Paquetá and Franck Kessié, could be more offensive minded and help Milan in the final third.
Bakayoko stats per 90 throughout his first season at Milan
25 games (20 starts)
73 minutes average per game
956 passes (87% successful)
19 shots (5 on target)
8.5 duels won
2.4 aerial duels won
1.3 tackles won
1.1 dribbled past
2 errors led to shot
0 errors led to goal
1.8 successful dribbles
As can be seen, he still has a way left to reach his Monaco-self. However, compared to his time in Chelsea, a big improvement has been accomplished. Particularly in defensive aspect.
The nature of Serie A – slower pace and more tactically focused – seems to fit Bakayoko’s profile and preference better than the faster paced and more physical in the Premier League. But the confidence shown in him by coach Gennaro Gattuso has helped him tremendously as well.
Bakayoko has on multiple occasions praised Gattuso and thanked him for his confidence and belief in him, that he sees him almost like a father figure and that it’s helped him a lot to find himself a regained form again.
What’s waiting in the future for Bakayoko?
Besides staying at Milan for the rest of the season to try and reach a Champions League qualification, Milan’s sporting director has made the clubs intentions of redeeming Bakayoko very public.
The loan deal includes a €35 million buy-out clause, a clause that once were laughed at, but now considered a steal.
Some Italian media has already said that it’s a done deal, but Milan are awaiting to see if they qualify for Champions League or not to see how they’re going to structure the payments etc.
Speaking to MilanTV back in February the Frenchman said:
“I feel very well, I am very happy at this stage of the season, we won our last two games and I think the squad has shown it’s qualities during this good run. I really like the city of Milan, I’m very happy here and I want to stay. We all have a very good relationship with [Gennaro] Gattuso and we have the same concepts of football”.
There have been rumors that Leonardo and Maldini are trying to negotiate a fee lower than the official buy-out clause in the loan deal, but at this stage, that’s just speculations. What’s fairly certain is that Bakayoko is continuing with Milan.
Especially if Maurizio Sarri stays in charge of the Blues of London, as Jorginho has cemented himself in the position Bakayoko thrives in and Sarri let Bakayoko leave for Milan as there was no place for him in his squad and deemed him surplus. The Italian transfer guru, Gianluca Di Marzio, reported in mid-March that Gattuso wants the player redeemed at all costs.
A recall to the French national team is probably not far away either, given his impressive time for the “Rossoneri”. Merely a dream anymore, but a close reality.Published 21 May 2019, 05:29 IST