The rush to judge Chelsea summer signing Tiemoue Bakayoko hardly fair
Football is a game of opinions. And as long as the sport exists there will be players who divide them. At Chelsea this season, the latest to spark the debate is Tiemoue Bakayoko with supporters split over whether he has been a smart acquisition or a waste of money.
The £39.7 million summer signing from Monaco has had an erratic start to life in England with good moments interspersed with errors and a perceived lack of urgency. Often new arrivals are allowed a period of adjustment as they quietly acclimatise to their new surroundings. Unfortunately for Bakayoko, he stands over six feet tall and usually sports hair dyed either white or blue. Inconspicuous he is not.
Things began pretty well for the 23-year-old after the collective opening day debacle against Burnley. He appeared to complement N'Golo Kante in a two-man midfield by supplying physique and passing ability alongside his compatriot's high-energy and incisive interventions.
His display in the 4-0 win at Stoke in particular seemed to fully justify the reasons behind his acquisition. After winning the ball on the edge of his own area, he burst upfield before starting a move that ended with Alvaro Morata opening the scoring. In the second half, Bakayoko again disrupted a Stoke attack and fed Morata who then scored a wonderful solo goal. Physically strong, defensively diligent, a powerful runner -- Bakayoko looked every inch the prototypical Antonio Conte midfielder.
Unfortunately for Bayakoko, Conte and Chelsea, injuries then beset the squad and upset the new signing's form. Without Kante alongside him and no Danny Drinkwater to call upon due to a calf problem, Bakayoko's impact on games diminished markedly. Asked to form a partnership with the defensively naive Cesc Fabregas, Bakayoko struggled to fill the void. To add to his travails, he was also suffering from a groin injury himself. At a time when his complaint might have been obscured by Kante's dynamism, he was having to play through the pain and do the defensive job of two men.
While his fortunes -- along with Chelsea's -- have improved with Kante's return to fitness, Bakayoko has been unable to replicate those early performances. There have been bright spots but also an absence of consistency -- his outings against Manchester United and Liverpool being a case in point. In the 1-0 win over Man United, Bakayoko was excellent, imposing himself on the game and helping his team to win the midfield argument as well as the match. At Liverpool, he could hardly do good for doing bad. There were some positive interventions but a general lack of intensity in his display did not help Gary Cahill and Marcos Alonso behind him. The one time he did get involved in a key area, his meek interception played in Mohamed Salah who promptly broke the deadlock.
While Bakayoko's Chelsea career might not quite have taken off as yet, it seems that the negative attention that he is getting from many media pundits and unconvinced Chelsea supporters stems from some players who aren't playing at Stamford Bridge. The sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United, in particular, perplexed many outside the club. Although a fantastic servant for the Blues in two title-winning campaigns, the Serbia international has his deficiencies, namely no pace and narrow passing range. It is also notable that he never put in a full season of quality performances, always playing well for half a campaign and less so for the other.
Yet suddenly, upon signing for Man United, he was retrospectively branded by many as the key to Conte's midfield and the missing piece of Jose Mourinho's jigsaw at Old Trafford. Despite having very different qualities to Matic, Bakayoko was bought ostensibly as Matic's replacement and therefore the glare of the spotlight has been shone brightly upon him and not always very favourably or fairly.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek's star turn for Crystal Palace and his man-of-the-match performance on his England debut have also been used to pile on Bakayoko. The academy graduate has certainly been catching the eye and if he continues in the same vein then he will be impossible to ignore by the Chelsea manager next season. But the implication by those damning Bakayoko in comparison is that Chelsea should have pinned all their hopes on Loftus-Cheek, a player with only a handful of senior games behind him. Had Bakayoko not been purchased and the same injury problems occurred, Conte would have been left with a midfield pairing of Loftus-Cheek and Fabregas. Creative? Yes. Exciting? Certainly. Able to win the ball back regularly, if ever? No chance.
Bakayoko should simply be judged on what he does and not on who else might have been playing in his position. He has not set Stamford Bridge alight but neither has he stunk the place out. He is a young player in a foreign country just a few months into his Premier League experience, a world away from life on the French Riviera and the gentler Ligue 1. Judgement should be reserved, at least, until the end of the season.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.