Digital Football Journalist @ronnabe
How's Tiemoue Bakayoko doing with AC Milan? Chelsea loanee proving doubters wrong
Last Updated: 22/04/19 7:14pm
Tiemoue Bakayoko left Chelsea under a cloud last year - but his Italian job on loan with AC Milan has taken him from zero to hero.
Much was expected of the Frenchman when he arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2017 given his £40m price tag, having just sealed the Ligue 1 title with Monaco in the esteemed company of Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe and Thomas Lemar.
But after a bright start, by December things had already begun to slump. He incurred the wrath of Blues legend-turned-pundit Frank Lampard after his error gifted Atletico Madrid a goal in a 1-1 Champions League goal in December, and four days later was hauled off at half-time in an embarrassing defeat at West Ham.
As Chelsea's form worsened, Bakayoko increasingly became the scapegoat; things came to a head in a 4-1 hammering by Watford in February, when another dismal performance was compounded by a red card - all inside half an hour.
He would start only four more Premier League games all season before being shipped out on loan to AC Milan, where despite a slow start at the San Siro, things have finally started looking up for the 24-year-old - and with a fee agreed to take the midfielder to Italy on a permanent deal, should Milan exercise it, could the Blues end up regretting their decision?
A tough start
Milan are reportedly ready to pay the agreed €35m (£30.2m) fee to keep Bakayoko at Milan at the end of his loan spell, but as recently as October there were rumblings of discontent that fiery manager Gennaro Gattuso wanted to send him packing.
At first, life in Milan did not provide the turnaround Bakayoko would have craved. With his confidence shot and without regular football for more than six months, he struggled in the opening weeks in Serie A and was singled out as "having defects" by Gattuso at the end of his first league game.
"After hearing those words I was not happy," the man himself later responded. "I felt challenged in my position on the pitch.
"I haven't even talked about it with the coach though. I thought about working and nothing else. I know myself and I know what my qualities are. I was convinced that by training hard, things would work out."
That impressive resilience was tested as the season wore on and by October, reportedly, only Chelsea's reluctance stopped him from returning early to Stamford Bridge with Milan said to be so unimpressed with his early performances they wanted him gone.
But suddenly, something clicked. "He deserved a night like this," Gattuso said after a starring role in a 2-1 win over Genoa in November. "Tactically and physically he was devastating. He seemed like a giant, especially in the first half."
Fortune played its part as Bakayoko went on to start 15 of the next 16 games in Serie A. Giacomo Bonaventura's season-ending injury in October and Lucas Biglia's absence for four months opened the door for the Frenchman, but the performances which have made him a mainstay in Gattuso's midfield were down to no-one but him.
Rebuilding in Italy
Since the turn of the year, Bakayoko has rebuilt his dented reputation to the extent where Milan have stopped pushing the midfielder out of the door, and instead are heading to the bank to pay the hefty sum required to keep him at the San Siro.
It has been reported in the Italian press the club's board will sanction the transfer even if they miss out on the financial bonus of the Champions League, and may even consider selling other first-team players to accommodate his permanent move.
But his transformation has not just been about restoring the presence he felt at Monaco - Gattuso has set about entirely redefining Bakayoko's role at Milan - more by necessity than desire - and it has paid dividends for player and club, with the San Siro side now on the verge of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in five years.
"Gattuso has been good with him," Luca Talotta, a sports journalist with Milan newspaper Il Giorno told Sky Sports. "Before he had tried playing him at the base of midfield in front of the defence to replace Biglia, but that ended up being a failed experiment.
"Then he realised that Bakayoko could be a great option further forward, or even on the wing."
Bakayoko's versatility has not been his only strength. Not blessed with great pace, something which held him back more in the Premier League than in Serie A, his physical presence has been a great asset to Milan's midfield.
Talotta added: "At the beginning of the season, he was not in good physical shape and it showed. Now he is still a bit slow but physically strong, and it's difficult to take the ball off him - Milan don't have another player like that."
What next for Bakayoko?
Milan's finances have come under scrutiny from UEFA under their Financial Fair Play rules, and they were fined £10.7m in December and warned they could face a ban from UEFA competitions for any repeat.
But reports in the Italian media suggest Milan's determination to sign Bakayoko is such that they will find a way of paying the sum they have agreed with Chelsea one way or another, potentially paving the way for Franck Kessie to depart the club, according to Corriere Dello Sport.
It certainly appears to be a move which would interest the midfielder, who told Sports Witness earlier this month: "A second season at Chelsea could have allowed me to settle, but I felt the need to leave.
"When I joined Milan, (sporting director) Leonardo is the one who contacted me. If I had to leave, it was for Milan because that club made me dream when I was a kid."