Chelsea: Where did it all go wrong for Tiemoue Bakayoko?

The French midfielder has departed on a season-long loan to AC Milan, likely bringing an end to one of the Premier League’s most underwhelming careers

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REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

It would be fair to say that Tiemoue Bakayoko did not enjoy a dream start to life in the Premier League. 

After his £40 million move from Monaco to Chelsea in the summer of 2017, much was expected of the young midfielder. However, he finished the campaign under a cloud, ranked by many as the worst signing of the summer and, by some overly harsh punters, the worst player in the league.

Now, Bakayoko has escaped to Serie A on a season-long loan deal with AC Milan. If he impresses, Milan have a £35.65 million option to make the deal permanent. 

Most Blues fans would probably snap their hand off to make back the majority of their money on the player. But just where did it all go wrong for Bakayoko?

Hero to zero

It didn’t look like being a nightmare season to start with. Rushed into his debut against Tottenham Hotspur early in the season, Bakayoko was short of fitness and barely recovered from a recent knee injury but he put in a superb performance and was singled out for praise by manager Antonio Conte after the game.

His first five appearances brought four wins and a draw with Bakayoko looking like a superb replacement — perhaps even an upgrade — on the departed Nemanja Matic.

“He had an amazing performance [against Tottenham] but for sure he can improve,” Conte had said. “He needs to adapt to our style of football.” That second part proved easier said than done.

As the season wore on, his performances dipped and his confidence noticeably faded. This culminated in his 30-minute disasterclass at Vicarage Road in February, when Bakayoko took the brunt of the blame for Chelsea’s 4-1 defeat to Watford after being sent off for two yellow cards inside the first half.

Scapegoat or waste of space?

A quick glance at Bakayoko’s offensive stats for the 2017/18 season show that some of the criticism levelled against him was a little harsh.

As an attacking force, he fractionally improved on his last season at Monaco. His passing percentage remained similar, he made more key passes per 90 minutes, had more shots and finished the season with more assists. 

Fans’ claims that Bakayoko couldn’t pass a football and constantly gave away possession don’t really hold up in the stats. But this wasn’t Bakayoko’s main problem. He was signed as a midfield destroyer, there to ease the defensive burden on N’Golo Kante and free up Chelsea’s attackers to get forward. In this regard, Bakayoko never lived up to his Monaco form. 

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
 

Looking at the statistics in this area, he was dribbled past more often for Chelsea than Monaco — 1.1 times per 90 league minutes, up from 0.8. He made fewer interceptions — 1.3 per 90 league minutes, down from 1.8. He made noticeably fewer clearances — 1.2 per 90 minutes and just 0.4 in the Champions League, down from 1.7 and 1.9 respectively. And, most disappointingly for a man of his stature, he was less aerially dominant than in the past, winning just 1.4 aerial duels per game compared to 2 in his final season at Monaco.

While Bakayoko did not live up to his own impressive example, more significant was the fact that he underperformed the man he was supposed to replace in almost every aspect.

While Matic did not quite live up to his expectations as Paul Pogba-releaser-in-chief at Manchester United, he had put in a superb final season at Stamford Bridge. Bakayoko failed to match the Serbian’s output in terms of tackles, interceptions, clearances, one-on-ones or assists. That left a hole in Chelsea’s midfield, a chasm in which Bakayoko frequently looked lost.

A victim of expectations?

Perhaps Bakayoko’s biggest problem was simply the weight of expectation he had to carry.

He had come from Monaco where Leonardo Jardim’s sensational young side had been playing perhaps the best football in the world at the time. A £40 million price tag brings with it a lot of pressure, particularly for a 22-year-old with one international cap to his name.

It was a lot to expect from a youngster in his first season in English football and Chelsea are not known for being a forgiving environment for those who don’t hit the ground running. 

15 goals have seen fellow summer signing Alvaro Morata branded as a waste of space by plenty of fans, while the pair were hardly the only players to under-perform in a season which saw the Blues finish way off the title pace in fifth.

Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley 

There are more footnotes to Bakayoko’s underwhelming season. His fellow Monaco exports yielded mixed results at their own clubs. Kylian Mbappe shone for PSG but saw his goal tally drop and, while Benjamin Mendy looked superb for Manchester City before his injury, teammate Bernardo Silva finished his debut campaign with a sense of intrigue and promise rather than one of fulfilment in terms of his personal form.

It should also be noted that SW6 probably wasn’t the easiest place to settle last season. On the sinking ship that Chelsea’s title defence quickly became, Captain Conte spent most of the season grumbling about the board and seemingly hating his time at the club. A more harmonious unit may have helped Bakayoko to settle more easily.

A good season is needed

Turning 24 this week, the Frenchman has plenty of time to deliver on his potential but a good season in Italy is needed. 

Unless Maurizio Sarri takes a shine to him, it’s hard to see him coming back and knocking one of Kante or Jorginho out of the side. 

A fresh start is needed and the San Siro is a good place for Bakayoko to find his rhythm again.

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