Tiémoué Bakayoko made an inauspicious start to his loan spell at Milan. Just a few games into the Serie A season, after a 3-2 defeat against Napoli, the Frenchman was publicly criticised by his own manager.
“Bakayoko has to learn how to get the ball,” said a dejected Gennaro Gattuso, hardly instilling confidence in the new signing. “We must work correctly. It will not be easy. One week is not enough to remove the defects of a player. I would have preferred to be managing older, more experienced club players.”
Gattuso’s comments hardly suggested a bright future for Bakayoko at Milan. The 24-year-old, off the back of a difficult first season at Chelsea, was already fragile, searching for a club to regain some form. Instead, in the opening weeks, he found only criticism.
“I didn’t appreciate the statements after my debut and both myself and the people around me took them very badly. They were illogical. He questioned my play and what I had learned in training,” Bakayoko later said in an interview with France Football.
“According to him, I should have learned how to orientate and change the position of my body. But he is like that. He says what needs to be said and wants things to be said to the face. He isn’t one to bear a grudge.
“Frankly, I think that all players would like to have a coach like him. He is a father figure, with whom you can talk about anything and everything. He’s very close to his players and protects them and there aren’t many who do that.”
Clearly, Gattuso’s tough, uncompromising style of man-management has worked. Bakayoko has not sulked, not shied away from attention. He has worked on his deficiencies and made tangible improvements. And he is now an important figure in midfield for a Milan team looking to secure European football next season.
There have been signs, throughout the campaign, that Bakayoko is rediscovering the form he displayed at Monaco, where he was instrumental in the Ligue 1 club’s charge to the title and the semi-finals of the Champions League.
His £40million move to Chelsea did not work out – hence the Milan loan – and few even considered the possibility that he might have a future at Stamford Bridge when he departed for Italy in the summer.
Now, though, there is talk of a return to west London next season. Whether or not he will fit into Maurizio Sarri’s plans remains to be seen, but he has certainly given the Italian coach something to consider.
Bakayoko has rediscovered what made him so effective at Monaco: power, drive, and constant energy. The central figure in Gattuso’s midfield three, the France international has been a reliable and consistent performer, far from the error-strewn player who looked so out of place at Chelsea.
Bakayoko’s stats are an indication of his evolution at Milan. He has attempted an average of 3.3 dribbles per 90 minutes – among the highest in Serie A – which is up from just 2.07 last season. His possession turnovers have increased from 1.82 per 90 to 2.17. And he has won an impressive 3.0 aerial duels per game, compared to 1.69 last season.
No Milan midfielder has made more interceptions than Bakayoko’s 2.0 per 90 minutes, nor can any match his average of 16.17 forward passes per game.
Bakayoko has provided an urgency, a physicality in Milan’s midfield. His game appears to have been refined, too, made more focused by Gattuso. He is shooting far less often than at Chelsea – 1.0 times per 90 compared with 1.69 last season – but the accuracy of his attempts have increased from 22.5 per cent to 30.4 per cent.
“Bakayoko's biggest surprise is his improvement on a tactical level,” Gattuso said in December. “We knew the physical abilities he has. I like for how he listens, for how he moves.
“You are seeing a Bakayoko who closes more lines of passage, impacts more and pinches forward. It's what he missed earlier, today he does not touch the ball more than twice, it's an important sign.”
Crucially, Bakayoko has responded to his detractors, overcome harsh criticism, and now finds himself in an enviable position. A return to Chelsea no longer seems out of the question after recent events, but there is likely to be strong interest from Milan in a permanent transfer.
“I’m playing well and I’m very grateful to Milan,” he has said. “I’m very happy here, even though I was harshly criticised at the beginning. That is normal though because everyone expected more so that’s no surprise.
“I can’t think too much about the future though because I’m doing everything I can to ensure that Milan qualify for the Champions League. It has been five years since we have heard that music here. When it sounds again at the San Siro, I want to be here. We’ll see how the season ends because I also still have a contract with Chelsea and they are a very important club for me.”
With a two-window transfer ban looming over the Blues, don’t be surprised to see a much-improved Bakayoko make a return next season.