“Marseille hold very good memories for me. It's the club that allowed me to make my name in France. I will always thank them for that,” said Frenchman Giannelli Imbula in an interview with Telefoot last month.
The talented central midfielder was easily one of the French club's outstanding players, especially in his final season at the club under the tutelage of one Marcelo Bielsa. In the build up to his transfer to Stoke City in January 2016, manager Mark Hughes described him as “a good young player with good power, good ability on the ball, a good range of passing.”
After seeing him firsthand when Stoke played Porto in a friendly in Germany the previous summer, Hughes admitted that it resonated with him when it was mooted he may be available in the following transfer window and was convinced he would “add to the quality we already have.”
When the deal was finally completed, he was trumpeted as a huge signing for the club. The fee was huge, after all, with him costing a reported club record £18.3million. But that was a small price to pay for someone as gifted as Imbula, who had made his name in France. Unfortunately for Porto and Stoke fans, however, he left it right there.
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The 24-year-old struggled to settle in Portugal following his 2015 summer move to one of the country's two biggest clubs for a reported record-breaking fee of €20million. After just six months, they made him available – and Stoke were happy to take him.
After impressing in his first few appearances for the Potters, including a man-of-the-match display on his debut versus Everton, his form tailed off at the business end of the campaign and has not returned since. Now, Imbula has been linked with a return to Marseille to get his name back.
“A move back? I will not talk about it. I focus on Stoke. We will see at the end of the season,” he went on to say in his interview, adding: “Picking the team is the choice of the coach. I try to work hard in training and I have someone who takes care of me physically so I'm ready, waiting for my turn. I have already spoken (to Hughes about the situation). It was no big deal. I focus on what I have to do.”
With Imbula's stay in England looking to be a brief one, comparisons were readily being made with his situation at Porto, something his father and agent was swift to deny.
“The coach has given Giannelli a little time to rest,” he told France Football.
“From the time he arrived until the end of last season he played all 14 matches, scoring two goals. The coach communicates with Giannelli and he is clear with him, not like what happened in Porto.
“Things will change soon,” he added.
“Stoke will need him again and he will come back into the team. Giannelli is no longer a kid, he's a professional and a hard worker. This doesn't make me worry.”
But that was back in November. Given he is yet to work his way back into first-team reckoning at this stage of the season, there is certainly cause to worry now. Imbula had been given chances to impress as he initially had a place in the starting lineup at the start of the season, but Stoke failed to record a single victory in their first five league games, losing four of them on the spin. This prompted Hughes to ring the changes, one of which was to drop Imbula, and these changes yielded an unbeaten run of six games, including three straight victories.
— Stoke City FC (@stokecity) November 24, 2016
He was handed a lifeline in the League Cup home tie with Hull City, but he turned in another disappointing display in his side's 2-1 loss. Over the next two months, he alternated between not making the bench and not making the squad at all before starting four of five games in December.
During this time, Hughes tried to be encouraging and empathetic rather than harsh and rigid, acknowledging that the player responded to the former man-management style over the latter, and that he was really struggling to adapt to the rigours of a fast-paced, highly competitive league. His good attitude and hard work in training also aided his cause.
“It's about making sure he's ready to go back in and his response has been fantastic,” said Hughes back in October.
“His training has been at a good level and he's very much in my thoughts.
“It may be he needs to continue in that vein for a while longer, but he's a good player with a talent we want to use, so it's about making sure he comes back into the group and is raring to go.”
But in addition to struggling to come to grips with the league, his failure thus far to grasp the nation's mother tongue was also proving a stumbling block.
“It's difficult for him to converse,” Hughes added, “but his knowledge of English is good and for the most part he understands everything said to him.
“He probably needs to have that confidence to converse with his team-mates, but it's difficult and I've been in that position myself and can show that empathy with him because I've been abroad when I could understand bits and pieces of what was being said to me, but the frustration was I couldn't converse back.
“So there's a little bit of that going on, but he's getting there and it's only a matter of time before he becomes the player we know he can be for us.”
But as Imbula continued to struggle, his time at the club looked to be up when the January transfer window opened. According to the Stoke Sentinel, Stoke rejected a loan offer from Serie A outfit Torino, as they were only interested in a permanent deal.
Imbula, however, in an interview with former France international William Gallas for SFR Sport near the end of that window, outlined his determination to fight for his place, by “working, working, and working.”
To be fair, he has, as expected, proven quite good on the ball since his arrival. In fact, from the period when he debuted last February to the end of that season, he completed 666 passes in the 14 appearances he made, enough to rank him seventh in the league among all players within that time period.
A pass completion percentage of 88 was equally impressive. He also completed a hugely impressive 61 take-ons, an average of 4.4 per game which was the most in the league, again within that same time period. He also chipped in with two goals.
In his 12 appearances this season he has completed 330 passes and boasts another impressive completion percentage of 86. He has also completed a decent 21 take-ons so far.
So clearly, Imbula's ability has been shining through to an extent. The problem Hughes is said to be having with him, though, is his failure to properly carry out his defensive duties. Looking at his output where this is concerned, dating back to last season, one can understand why the Welshman is frustrated.
Last season, he averaged just one tackle per game, made just seven interceptions, and six clearances. This season saw no improvement, as he has made just nine tackles, four interceptions, and eight clearances to date — not nearly good enough for a Premier League midfielder in his role.
He is so focused on influencing the game going forward that when his team is on the back foot, he is caught out of position, and given he is yet to acclimatise to the pace of the league, the opposition's attacks are passing him by, something Hughes can ill afford.
Imbula certainly has the talent — everyone at Stoke knows it — and he has the right attitude, but he needs to work harder to recover the name he made in France between now and the end of the season, or else he could find himself on his way back there this summer to get it.