‘Ten-man Leicester hold on for point at Chelsea’ read many of the headlines after Saturday’s goalless draw between the Premier League’s two most recent champions. Yet, whereas the visitors did a worthy job of reacting to the predicament posed by Ben Chilwell’s dismissal midway through the second half, their hosts had progressively been wrestling with the same problem long before the young left back went flying uncontrollably into Victor Moses like a novice ice-skater suddenly stripped of his equilibrium.
For while a quick totting up of heads may have revealed the men in blue started and, unlike their opponents, finished with a full deck, a phantom presence was forever among their ranks. For 90 minutes Tiemoue Bakayoko drifted, ambled and loitered indeterminately about the middle of the pitch with all the purpose of a discarded plastic bottle being carried by the ocean’s tides. And, much like humanity’s rampant pollution of the planet’s waters, this was not an isolated occurrence.
It has often been said of N’golo Kante, by Chelsea and Leicester fans alike, that his performances are so impactful and apparent, so constantly and consistently in action, that, even to the untrained eye and even for a player who does most of his work off the ball, the only way to adequately capture the sensation of his omnipresence is as if there are two of him. In the case of Bakayoko so far this season, it’s as if there isn’t even one of him. There’s closer to none of him. The theoretical advantage of dropping Kante in alongside your more mortal midfielders is that his superhuman exertions provide the effect of having an extra man. Paired with Bakayoko, this effect is counterbalanced to the point of parity. For all the diminutive Frenchman offers beyond what is expected of a top-class central shield, his more physically imposing countryman has thus far fallen short and, increasingly, is falling out of favour at Stamford Bridge. Failing to eclipse Kante’s level for Chelsea and Leicester is nothing to hang one’s head in shame over. It’s the failure to match that of Danny Drinkwater which is the real cause of concern for Antonio Conte.
Early this season, the Italian calculated that a subtle tweak to his favoured 3-4-3 formation was necessary to counteract the way teams such as Spurs began to take advantage of Chelsea having only two men controlling the centre of the pitch. A forward, either Willian or Pedro, was sacrificed. Cesc Fabregas re-found his place as the pass master employed to feed the two remaining attackers while Kante was already in place to fend off hungry foes looking to do likewise. In between these two specialists, Conte wanted a player who could glue the whole thing together. Nemanja Matic, lacking the mobility and drive for the job, was sold, perhaps prematurely, to Manchester United while Bakayoko was the man immediately identified to fill the void. Yet, rather than fill it, the 40m euro man has instead done his finest impersonation of the void. ‘Central void’ is as accurate a description of Bakayoko’s current role in the Chelsea side as any other. It looks like the position, the role, he was born to play.
Oh what a difference a year makes. Of the fab four to be snatched away from that joyous Monaco side of last year, dismantled as rapidly as they’d established themselves on the global stage, Bakayoko has been the greatest disappointment. Kylian Mbappe looked like a superstar the moment you laid eyes on him and remains on such a trajectory at PSG. Benjamin Mendy showed flashes of devilish dynamism in the few games he played for Manchester City before blowing out his knee ligaments while Bernardo Silva, part of the club’s ‘buy-one-get-another-one-for-even-more-money’ policy, has slipped seamlessly into the role of shadowing his namesake at the Etihad. Bakayoko, for the time being remains the Ringo of the group.
Perhaps it would be premature to right him off just yet. Bakayoko’s best outings in a Chelsea shirt to date have come in the familiar terrain of European competition, the stage on which he announced himself to the wider footballing community last season. This dichotomy suggests an issue not of talent but instead simply adaption to a new league. At only 23, Bakoyoko certainly has youth on his side. Yet, with Roman Abramovich left looking up at Manchester City in the league and down on a box office signing failing to live up to his billing, Caesar’s thumb threatens to deliver a swift and unsavoury sentence unless performances start to change. In the cutthroat business of European football’s gilded elite, having youth on your side is one thing. Having time is an altogether different prospect.