Stoke City, once the purveyors of a long-ball, direct and physical style of football, took another step away from that stereotype on Monday night, finalising the biggest move on transfer deadline day, completing the signing of Giannelli Imbula from FC Porto.
At one stage, just over six months ago, the 23-year-old was one of the most wanted players in Europe. Marseille’s finances had taken a turn for the worse and Imbula represented their best option for a quick profit. Signed from Guingamp for just over £5 million in 2013, OM tripled their money in just two seasons, due to the France under-21 international’s reaction under legendary Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Under the combination of Elie Baup and Jose Anigo, the midfielder looked like a lost puppy at times. He lacked that confidence he had shown at EAG. The promise was there, but OM’s inability to use him effectively as well as the coach’s over-reliance on defensive tactics were at odds to Imbula’s playing style. He was soon demoted behind the veterans Benoit Cheyrou and Alaixys Romao.
However, the arrival of Bielsa breathed new life into the 22-year-old. After an average first campaign, the former Chile coach recognised the benefits of the leggy midfielder, and used him as a direct point between defence and attack. Bielsa – known for his love of attacking at speed – recognised that Imbula was the perfect vessel to carry out his vision.
Imbula’s penchant for running at opponents, as well as seeking out the attackers with precision passing, contributed heavily to Marseille’s promising early season form. If Andre-Pierre Gignac was credited with the goals, and Dimitri Payet the assists, it was more often than not, Imbula, who played a huge role in the side’s quick build-up play.
Last season, his performances looked like night and day when compared to his debut campaign. His long strides brought comparisons with Patrick Vieira in his Arsenal prime, ghosting past opponents, he was a driving force in Bielsa’s high-tempo style. Imbula rediscovered the attacking edge that made him such an eye-catching prospect in Brittany, but he was not without his faults.
Although a willing runner and a great option in attack, his decision making often left a lot to be desired. Learning when to pass, or when to keep going, is something that comes with time and games. It is unclear whether or not this has developed any more since his time in Portugal. The Premier League will offer less time on the ball, but the player has risen to every challenge put in his way so far, and obviously Mark Hughes thinks he has got the right man.
"It's a five-and-a-half-year contract and that shows our commitment to Giannelli and the player we think he is,” Hughes told press after the signing was confirmed. “There's a lot more to come from him as well so we want to benefit from that. We're really looking forward to working with him. He's a player of great talent and we've just got to get the best out of him."
It’s clear to see why the former Manchester United man was attracted to Imbula, the midfielder will slot perfectly into his 4-2-3-1 formation as that was the system used when he flourished most at Marseille. When Bielsa decided to play 3-3-3-1, Imbula was often thrown to the wolves – asked to play the central midfield role on his own. It was unclear how much freedom the youngster would have to break forward and join the attacks and it showed in his play.
When he played beside a defensive stopper like Romao, he looked more confident and a player that could be the difference at any moment. Marseille fans can only dream what a partnership with Lassana Diarra could have brought to the club.
During his second season at the Stade Velodrome, Imbula played 37 games, adding two goals and three assists. After a big money move to Portugal, playing only ten league games in his first five months made it clear that he wasn’t in Julen Lopetegui’s plans.
"I'm really pleased to have become a Stoke City player," beamed the former French Under-21 star. "It's a very exciting moment for me in my career. The last months I spent in Porto, I found very difficult. I really hope everything will be OK here.”
"It's important for me that the coach wants me and I know Mark Hughes wants me here. I will give my best for him and the team."
Still a young, developing player, Imbula felt wanted and needed by Bielsa at Marseille, it’s clear that could be said for his time in Oporto – if Hughes can keep this good feeling going into the next four months, he will hopefully rediscover the player that excited the Marseille fans. Imbula at his best has the drive, energy and determination to bolster the mood around the Britannia Stadium.
Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester United was Stoke’s third without a win in the Premier League and their fifth overall. Hughes will be hoping that Imbula can slot seamlessly into his 4-2-3-1 and hit the ground running. The former Blackburn Rovers boss will have to decide if that’s in place of either Ibrahim Afellay or Glenn Whelan. The 23-year-old is taller and more physical than both his team-mates, but perhaps it would be safer to introduce beside the experience of the Irish international.
Stoke continue to turn heads with their ambitious moves in the transfer window. In Giannelli Imbula, they have signed a player that was one of Europe’s hottest prospects less than six months ago. Now it’s up to the player, club and most importantly, his coach, to do all they can to make it an all-round success.