Without context, Tiémoué Bakayoko’s performance against Tottenham was easily classified as decent. He filled gaps intelligently, covered ground well and added a physicality to Chelsea’s midfield that has been sorely lacking. His football IQ was impressive: he knew when to hold and when to break. There was an appreciation of space that I really liked – you can see it when he chose to drive forward with the ball. Ultimately, he appears to be an intelligent addition to the squad who looks to have an incredibly high ceiling. This is all great, but the appreciation of his performance really goes up several notches when the context surrounding Bakayoko’s debut is taken into account.
It says a lot about the mentality of Bakayoko that he opted to play when clearly lacking fitness. Not a single person at the club expected Bakayoko to start against Tottenham: the logical thinking was that he could potentially make the bench. He was still a week or two from being in consideration to start. However, Bakayoko approached the manager during the week and told him that he wanted to play despite the numerous medical reasons telling him to wait. A source at the club confirmed that Conte was taken aback by the gesture. Bakayoko essentially told the manager “if you need me, I will run for 90 minutes and worry about it later”. Not many players willingly put themselves in that sort of situation; particularly when the opponent is both as good and as physical as this Tottenham side. A certain Ivorian idol of Bakayoko’s reportedly telling him the meaning of this fixture unquestionably helped.
If you want to endear yourself to your new teammates and supporters, why not go above and beyond against their biggest rival? Volunteering for one of the biggest matches of the season while playing largely on one leg – sure why not? What a chap. It was a performance of pure endeavour and guts. When everyone expected him to be pulled around the 60-minute mark he continued to power through. The ring rust that was evident throughout the early part of the match disappeared. We began to see glimpses of real quality emerge. He kept up with Dembélé and bettered Wanyama, all the while playing through discomfort and an alarming lack of match practice. Bakayoko grew into the game and incredibly finished strong.
The obvious and slightly ridiculous Nemanja Matić comparisons started in earnest the minute Sky began their pre-show and continued right through until the credits. Martin Tyler mentioned the Serbian’s name more times during the match than he ever did while Matić patrolled Chelsea’s midfield. The narrative was set – Chelsea are idiots for selling a player to Manchester United and Manchester United got the better end of the deal. Yet, it was Bakayoko, on one leg, who matched Tottenham’s physicality in midfield. A wonder goal aside, Matić was never able to get to grips with Tottenham.
This was by no means a perfect performance, but given the context it is easy to overlook some of the raw moments. Yes, Dele Alli conned him a few times and yes there were a few silly fouls, but ask yourself how much did Alli or Eriksen really influence the game (set-pieces aside)? Eriksen only completed one pass into Chelsea’s penalty area in 90 minutes – something practically unheard of when he plays. Alli was a ghost, whose only real contribution was confirming his unreal ability to stare directly at the referee as he collpases to the ground. Truly wonderful from him. Those spaces Alli and Eriksen often found last season were filled expertly by Bakayoko, Kanté and Luiz. Defensively he looks both intelligent and athletic enough to perform any role that Conte asks him. Intelligence being the key thing here. Maybe when he can link with Hazard, his ability to break through midfield will yield more positive results.
I was encouraged with his ability on the ball. No one is going to confuse him with Andrea Pirlo in the passing department, but with plenty of youth on his side this aspect of his game is going to improve. There is a misconception that he simply cannot play, but this is very much untrue. Ultimately, we did not buy him to act as a pass master but as a true midfield general. Exhibiting on more than one occasion a commanding ability to break from deep combined with the intelligence to make the right final decision was great. When was the last time Chelsea had a midfielder who could carry the ball 40-50 yards with players bouncing off him? Michael Essien? It adds a unique dynamic to this side. Reminding everyone again that he was barely fit and should not have played, the fact he made two fantastic bursts was absurd. He already looks like the box-to-box player this team has needed. If he can add goals and start to influence play in the final third, we have a gem on our hands.
We appear to have signed an incredibly dynamic and gifted footballer. From a physical standpoint, the fact he completed 90 minutes is a baffling. His calmness and ability in possession given the level of opposition was notable. Sure, this was not a performance to set the world ablaze but I have no doubts that he will grow as a player once he understands the role, the system and obviously gets himself match fit. There are things to improve, as Conte alluded to in his interview, but in terms of a debut it was extremely positive.
A lot was said about Bakayoko’s entourage in the media before we signed him. The word entourage often has negative connotations for the footballer concerned. Was he more interested in TB14 the brand or being a footballer? With one very unexpected and welcome action, I think we have figured out exactly the type of character Bakayoko is and what kind of footballer he will be for this club. I have wanted us to sign a Michael Essien type player for a very long time. The Bison famously came back from injury and played a blinder in Turin (scoring when a lot of people would have pulled out from the goal line scramble). Bakayoko seems to be cut from the same cloth: someone willing to go that little bit further for the shirt. Is he the technical midfield destroyer we have been crying out for? I think he becomes that player over the course of this season. Plenty to work on, sure, but that ceiling looks incredibly high. If Conte stays and moulds him, how many teams are going to want to face him and Kanté regularly? Seriously?