Chelsea must love signing French midfielders in the middle of July. Especially those who have helped their previous teams register shock league victories. Last year on July 16 they had signed N’Golo Kante from Leicester City. He not only helped the Blues regain the Premier League title but also won the Premier League Player of the Year.
So this year, on 15th July, Chelsea went to France and signed the 22-year old ball-winning midfielder Tiemoué from the Ligue 1 champions AS Monaco. Antonio Conte must have rated the Frenchman highly, because, after a fairly lengthy chase over the last several weeks amidst reported interest from other Premier League clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool, Chelsea ensured they got their man – for a reported £35 million. The fees paid, if true, reflects not only the premium that Premier League clubs are being charged in this inflated transfer market but also the urgency with which Chelsea needed a high-quality midfielder. The Blues have a plethora of advanced midfield and wing options but in the traditional midfield role, they are under-staffed.
Last season, while competing only on the domestic front, Chelsea did well with three midfielders in Fabregas, Kante, and Matic. But this season, in addition to the domestic front, Chelsea also need to compete in the Champions League and having just three midfielders for four competitions could prove to be tricky. Further, Nemanja Matic seems to have his heart set on a reunion with Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. If he were to move, Conte would be left with only two senior midfielders, which would be an emergency. Thus, the need for Chelsea to pay more than twice (almost thrice as per Transfermarkt) the estimated value for Bakayoko is understandable.
But does Bakayoko possess similar capabilities like Chelsea’s current French talisman? What are his strengths and what is he not good at? Let us take a look.
Before we delve into Bakayoko’s stats, a bit about the player himself. He came up the ranks in Rennes and found himself playing for the Rennes senior side in Ligue 1 in the 2013-14 season. After just one season there, he was signed by Monaco but made only 31 appearances in the next two seasons for the principality club. In 2016-17 however, Leonardo Jardim started him in 25 games in Ligue 1 and the player repaid his boss with excellent performances.
Bakayoko made 31 appearances in the 2016-17 season as a central midfielder but his role was always of a defensive midfielder. In the words of Jardim, “He wins a lot of balls, brings balance to the team. He passes the ball well and wins his duels. That is Bakayoko’s role.” He has been compared to Yaya Toure although he is not that much of a goal threat. But Bakayoko is quite good in aerial duels due to his physicality. As Jardim says, he is good at intercepting and tackling as well, while also being a good dribbler. We will examine these attributes in detail now.
From Jardim’s description, it does seem that Chelsea have signed a younger clone of Kante, whose primary role in both his title-winning seasons has been disrupting the flow of the opponents. Like Kante, Bakayoko also depends upon interceptions and tackling for this. For Monaco last season, he put in 5.4 interceptions per 90 minutes, very similar to Kante’s 5.7, according to Wyscout.
In terms of defensive duels as well, Bakayoko’s numbers resemble those of Kante. For Monaco, the younger man was involved in 6.2 defensive duels with 60% success rate (about 3.6 successful defensive duels per 90 minutes), while Kante was involved in 6.5 defensive duels at 69% success rate. Where Bakayoko scores over Kante is in the aerial sphere. He was involved in 4.8 aerial duels per 90 minutes with 68% success rate, while Kante being comparatively diminutive was involved in only 1.8 aerial duels per 90 minutes and that too with 45% success rate.
Otherwise, in terms of ball recovery, both are the same – 2.4 times per 90 minutes for Bakayoko to 2.7 for Kante. Another area, where the new Chelsea player was more effective was in dribbling. In 1vs1 dribbling, Bakayoko was involved 4.6 times per 90 minutes with 83% success rate, while Kante was involved in only 1.9 dribbles at 87% success rate.
Just like Kante, Bakayoko’s contribution to creativity and attack was not very high for Monaco. He scored 2 goals and assisted one in Ligue 1. His numbers – just 2 key passes, 8 crosses (all unsuccessful), and 18 through passes (only 28% successful) in the whole Ligue 1 season, speak for themselves.
So, creativity in attack is not Bakayoko’s strength. But, as mentioned before, Conte has some of the best creative advanced midfielders and wingers at his disposal. But this signing gives the Italian two options who can disrupt the opponents’ game and who can be rotated to keep them fresh throughout a very busy season, provided Bakayoko stays fit.
That brings us to his fitness. He is currently unfit to travel with Chelsea to China for their pre-season tour. He had a knee operation after the end of the last season and is still recovering from it. Other than this most recent summer layover, Bakayoko has missed 28 Ligue 1 matches due to injury or exhaustion in the last three seasons. In all, he has not been available to play for 130 days (in-season) across last three seasons. That’s not terribly bad but he will have to come to terms with the more physical nature of Premier League and Conte will hope that going forward his new midfielder remains injury-free.
As said above, Chelsea have found themselves a younger Kante clone and have signed him. For Monaco, Bakayoko proved himself to be as good as Kante has been for Chelsea. He lacks the flair and creativity to make an impact in the attack but I do not think that Conte has signed him for an impact on the attack either. Conte has strengthened his midfield so that the demands of his style of play and increased number of competitions does not burn his first-choice midfield up and so that he can field a player of equal quality whenever he needs to rest Kante. Bakayoko seems to be excellent for that role.