Chelsea were successful in 2016/17, surprisingly winning the league title despite not being one of the favourites after a disastrous season beforehand. They went on a 13 game winning streak and finished the season with a high 93 point tally. All signs pointed to a very successful season but we need to look underneath the surface. Against the top 6, Chelsea had a decent record – winning 5 out of the 10 games (losing 4, drawing 1) versus City, Spurs, Arsenal and United – however, if we analyse each game, one could conclude that Chelsea had problems in the bigger games last season. Take the 1-3 victory away at the Etihad where Chelsea rode their luck several times. The opening 45 minutes of the match saw Chelsea survive – going just one goal down after a series of onslaughts from City. The game should’ve been over before half time but Chelsea rallied and the big players stepped up. Similarly, against Tottenham, Chelsea struggled again. They managed a 2-1 victory at home despite again being dominated in the first half. There was a common theme between these games – Chelsea’s midfield seemed to struggle against higher quality, more athletic opponents.
One of the biggest issues was that the midfield battle was often lost – Kanté and Matic often struggled to impose their will, especially when pressed highly. Chelsea needed to add a bit more athleticism and presence in midfield. So, how can Chelsea solve this problem, especially now they have returned to the Champions League where they’ll be facing top quality midfielders more often? Up steps Tiémoué Bakayoko.
A promising star at youth level, Bakayoko had a difficult start to his professional career due to off field issues and injuries, which caused him to fall off the radar for a while. After breaking through the Rennes youth system, Bakayoko managed to secure a £7m move to Monaco where the aforementioned issues came back to haunt him. Monaco manager Jardim took Bakayoko off after just 32 minutes in his debut game for Monaco after a bad performance, and the two did not see eye to eye for a sustained period of time after some off the pitch issues had strained their relationship. Bakayoko struggled again with injuries, and did not see himself in the starting line up for almost two months. Amongst other bad performances, things were going south for Tiémoué, who started to regret his move to Monaco.
Everything changed when Chelsea legend Claude Makélélé, one of the best holding midfielders the game has seen joined the Monaco coaching team. Claude took a liking to the young midfielder and saw that if Tiémoué changed a some aspects off the field that he could take his game to the next level. He took a young Bakayoko under his wing, and the results were amazing. Bakayoko started to take football seriously. With help from Claude and his former youth coaches at Rennes, he made changes to his everyday life – from his diet with help from expert fitness consultants to toning down his extravagant lifestyle – even changing his car colour from pink to black. Makélélé taught Tiémoué the game as he knew it on top of this, and the manager that he did not have the best relationship with massively appreciated the effort the young man put in to take his career seriously. Bakayoko finally won his place back and then went on to have a truly excellent breakout 16/17 season.
Bakayoko has become a very interesting project. A midfielder like Bakayoko is quite rare in today’s game. He offers a pretty unique blend of power, matched with good technical quality. Bakayoko is a tackling midfield lynchpin who has the ability to use his dominating figure to burst out of midfield with quality, Vieira-esque power dribbles. He finished only second behind old team mate Kylian Mbappé in most successful dribbles per 90 minutes for that excellent Monaco side which won the French title and made a deep run into the UCL. Bakayoko’s european performances were incredibly consistent which even saw him make it into the UEFA CL squad of the year. Mbappé echoes the importance of Bakayoko’s influence on the side last season – naming him the most important player in the team due to what he brings not just on the pitch, but also off it. He has always been a big personality, but now he is fully focused on his professional career, Bakayoko has matured into a fine footballer – the greatest thing about the French midfielder is that he can still improve.
A move to the Premier League under the tutelage of Juventus midfield legend and current Chelsea manager Antonio Conte could bring his game to another level. Bakayoko has a combination of interesting attributes but must learn now how to impose himself on the game in the final third more regularly. He also needs to work on his concentration – Bakayoko has great defensive ability but needs to ensure his head is in the game for the whole 90 minutes. He can and should improve the consistency of his passing too – but he has shown several times that he is bold enough to try difficult passes – he has the vision and has the potential to match the execution if he works on the consistent quality of his passes, and his decision making – on when to try the difficult pass, and when not to.
With PL POTY N’Golo Kanté set to be his partner for the upcoming season, Conte might be willing to unleash Bakayoko in a slightly more adventurous role – alternating his defensive responsibility with Kanté. With N’Golo sitting, Bakayoko can get forward more and devastate the opposition with his powerful dribbling ability, linking up with technical players like Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata. It will certainly be interesting to watch whether Bakayoko can advance to the next level and truly establish himself as one of the better midfielders in Europe. Bakayoko won’t solve all of Chelsea’s problems alone, but he certainly is a step in the right direction for Chelsea.
By: Thomas Anderson/@andoculture