Valencia’s newly aquired 19-year-old Belgian has been in the spotlight for off-the-field stuff more than his actual football over the last year, after a failed transfer to Atlético Madrid last summer turned into a stand-off between Zakaria and his then club, PSV. He was pretty much banished from the first team after refusing to agree to a new deal, despite easily being talented enough that the Dutch side would benefit from having him there. One thing led to another, and with his agent being Jorge Mendes, it won’t have been surprising to many that once free-agency came, Valencia was to be the youngster’s new home.
But, to be frank, all of that is uninteresting to me. It doesn’t matter how you got here. All that matters is what you do now that you are. And what does Bakkali offer los Che between the chalked lines? How does he slot in?
Well, as far as slotting in is concerned, he probably doesn’t. Not yet anyway, with Piatti, Feghouli, and the two Rodrigos – De Paul and Moreno – all essentially vying for one of the same two spots in Nuno’s 4-3-3, or potentially even fewer if the Portuguese GK-turned-manager plays a 3-5-2 as he very well might. I personally believe he needs stability now, and that a loan wouldn’t be a great idea in that sense, but just because I’d afford him a spot on the 25-man-roster for the season, that doesn’t mean Nuno will.
What Bakkali offers though, whether now or down the road, is the ability do do the unexpected from either wing – with either foot. The ball is glued to his feet, and his size and low centre of gravity allows him to turn on a dime. At a glance, there’s a lot of Alexis Sánchez in him, though Bakkali probably isn’t quite the athlete the Chiléan is. Like Sánchez, Bakkali almost always seeks to cut inside, and his stocky build makes him harder to bully than one might expect for a guy of his stature.
He showed positional versatility at PSV, but coming from the Dutch school, he’s more tactically disciplined and comfortable in the confines of a specific system than Arsenal’s player of the year, who’s shown himself to be better when allowed to travel. Bakkali has all the tools needed to stretch the field, create, and combine with his fullback from either wing, but he probably lacks the capacity and work rate to play out wide in a 3-back formation.
In short, Valencia have swooped up one of the most talented teenagers on the face of the earth – on a free transfer, at that. The sky is the limit for Zakaria Bakkali, but there’s a lot of hard work ahead if he’s ever to take off.
Oh, and a funny side note: He walks exactly like Gerard Deulofeu.