After Sunday’s very satisfying 1-0 win against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, many hymns of praise have been sung about Chelsea's starting eleven, most notably the rock solid Antonio Rüdiger and the fantastic attacking duo of Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud. While all of these great individual performances were wonderful to see, one in particular was especially gratifying, namely that of the chronically under-performing Tiémoué Bakayoko.
In a seven-match stretch that ran from the middle of February to the middle of April, Bakayoko played exactly two minutes for Chelsea Football Club. It felt like an admission of failure, of a wasted £40 million. His confidence was gone, his decision making and execution were terrible. He was lost.
On the 19th of April, at Burnley, Antonio Conte ended his rest/recuperation/exile and played him alongside Kante and Pedro in a three-man midfield. Chelsea won 2-1, Bakayoko played the whole 90 and a rebirth was underway. Nine days later at Swansea he was once again in the starting line-up, once again in a three-man midfield (with Cesc Fabregas replacing Pedro) and this time he not only played the entire match, he was excellent. For the first time, it was possible to see his confidence growing and his game coming back.
On Sunday against Liverpool, Bakayoko was entrusted with his third consecutive start, again with N’Golo Kante and Fabregas, and for the first time he began to look like the player Chelsea valued at £40 million. So this is why Chelsea were so intent on acquiring him from Monaco during last summer's transfer window. His tackling was firm, his decision-making quicker and his passing both less timid and more accurate.
Highlights, by definition, never tell the full story, but his pass to Victor Moses, which turned into the secondary assist on the game’s only goal, was a shining example of the confidence returned.
Bakayoko plays a peach of a ball out wide to Moses who controls and drives at his defender, fakes the cross and then curls in an inviting ball which Giroud gladly nods past Karius. 1-0. #CFC pic.twitter.com/zqsLsD8JfM— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) May 6, 2018
After the match, Antonio Conte went on Chelsea TV and was asked to deliver an update on the midfielder’s progress.
“I think he played a really good game with great focus from the start until the end. We are talking about a player very young, he is only 23 years old and in this first season for sure he is struggling a lot.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea TV
Even “struggling a lot” may be an understatement. Bakayoko had been a shadow of his Monaco-self for much of the season. Being forced into action while injured back in the fall certainly did not help, and things just snowballed from there. By January, he was an active hindrance to the team and seemed incapable of completing even the simplest of passes. His vaunted physical presence was nowhere to be found and when he wasn’t hiding from the ball, he was giving it away. His sending off at Watford proved the nadir of his season, beginning his exile from the first-team for the next two months.
Yesterday, however, Bakayoko showed none of those negative qualities. In a game that saw Chelsea make fewer than half as many passes as the visitors (354 to 763), his successful pass rate of 86% was not only the second best in the team (excluding the late substitute Pedro) but was also vital when transitioning from defense to attack, making the most tackles on the team (tied with Fabregas) and the fourth most interceptions.
Compared to some of his performances back in, say, January this is an obvious, steady improvement. In regard to his confidence, he illustrated plenty throughout the game and his twist and turn to make a fool of Firmino prior to picking that decisive pass to Moses was beyond sublime, something that normally only works if the player has the coolness and chutzpah to pull it off.
While a handful of decent-to-(very) good games certainly isn't enough to claim that “he’s back” (ed.note: pour one out for Fernando “he’s back!” Torres), this recent run of games, and especially Sunday afternoon is a good start. It gives hope for a better future. Bakayoko wouldn’t be the first new signing to struggle in his first season and he won’t be the last. Ramires, for example, comes to mind as someone who struggled mightily at first before putting in one excellent performance (his was against Manchester City) and using that springboard to launch a 5.5-year Chelsea career full of fantastic moments alongside steady, consistent contributions.
Should Bakayoko make a similar leap, we just might be singing his song without any irony in the future.