It is unlikely to be a glorious return for Tiémoué Bakayoko. There is no gaping hole for the Frenchman to fill in midfield. West London beckons only because the forced cancellation of the Ligue 1 season has brought a premature end to Bakayokos loan at Monaco, who are unlikely to have the finances required to complete a permanent deal for a player once regarded as one of the brightest young talents in Europe.
Three years ago Bakayoko was one of the hottest properties around, dominating opponents as Leandro Jardims dashing young Monaco side pipped Paris Saint-Germain to the French title and motored to the Champions League semi-finals. The team included Fabinho, Bernardo Silva and Kylian Mbappé, all of whom have played brilliantly since leaving Monaco at the end of that campaign or, in Silvas case, a year later, but Bakayoko was not out of place in their company. He was technically adroit, a powerful presence and, with France a year away from becoming world champions, looked set for a big future on the international stage.
Chelsea, who had won the Premier League title in Antonio Contes first season at Stamford Bridge, were impressed. Nemanja Matic was on his way to Manchester United and Conte needed a new partner for NGolo Kanté. Bakayoko, apparently more dynamic than the defensively minded Matic, seemed a good fit. Chelsea paid Monaco £40m and there were promising early signs when Bakayoko marked his first start with a strong display in a 2-1 win over Tottenham at Wembley.
Yet the positive vibes did not last long. With Bakayoko unable to build an understanding with Kanté, Contes mood darkened. The Italian was unhappy with the clubs business in the summer of 2017 – £30m on Danny Drinkwater sums it up, while Álvaro Morata was the wrong player to replace Diego Costa up front – and Bakayoko cut an increasingly awkward figure as the teams champion form disappeared. His confidence evaporated, the crowd turned on him and his first season in England would be remembered for a farcical performance in a 4-1 defeat at Watford.
Bakayoko was in the starting line-up when Chelsea ended the campaign by beating United in the 2018 FA Cup final but his star had waned. There was no place for him in the France squad that won the 2018 World Cup. Maurizio Sarri replaced Conte and signed Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic. Bakayokos status as a flop was cemented. A loan to Milan offered a fresh start and a chance for Chelsea to recoup some money.
Yet despite some encouraging displays in Serie A, Milan opted against buying Bakayoko. He returned to Chelsea last summer and found that Sarri had been replaced by Frank Lampard. Still, though, there was no route back into the fold. The new manager watched Bakayokos listless displays in pre-season – his efforts in a win over Reading left much to be desired – and quickly decided he would not be part of his plans.
Another loan beckoned, this time back at Monaco, and Chelsea were hopeful of moving him on after including a £38m option to buy in the deal. Yet the coronavirus pandemic has altered the picture. The French season is over and Bakayoko, who scored once in 21 appearances for Monaco, finds himself in limbo. Signing him permanently is likely to be beyond Monacos means and, although there are hopes of the Premier League resuming in June, Bakayoko will not be eligible to play for Chelsea in the remaining matches of the 2019-20 campaign.
Not that there is any room for him in Lampards plans. Chelsea, who are interested in West Hams Declan Rice and Lilles Boubakary Soumaré, have no shortage of midfielders. Lampards options include Kovacic, Jorginho, Kanté, Mason Mount, Ross Barkley, Billy Gilmour and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, while Ethan Ampadu and Conor Gallagher will hope to break into the senior squad when they return from loans. For Bakayoko, who has been linked with PSG, the task now is to find a new home. He is only 25. There is still time for someone to revive a wayward talent.