Imb-Ooh La La
A look into why Gianelli is the Creme de la Creme in the middle of the park.
If there’s one thing I don’t want to do to Gianelli Imbula, I don’t want to compare his arrival to the departure of Steven N’Zonzi. Last year’s Player of the Season was an ever-present part of a very successful Stoke team and took off for sunny Spain and Champions League football just as he was becoming one of the club’s finest midfielders. But obviously this left a big hole in the Starting XI and various combinations of the remaining midfielders, plus new recruit Ibrahim Afellay, were tasked to replicate the defensive dominance and forward-thinking flair that flowed through the heart of the team last year. Many Stoke fans were left wanting more from the engine room of the team, despite late success of the Whelan/Afellay partnership, and looked to the possibility of a fresh face during the January Transfer Window. Mark Hughes answered this call, and replied with Imbula at the cost of £18.3m.
Many eyebrows were raised at the cost of Imbula, after breaking their long standing transfer record by signing Xherdan Shaqiri in the Summer, it wasn’t expected for the club to break this again, let alone smash it by 150% of the £12m Shaqiri cost. However, Hughes was singing the praises of the French U21 international, as were various media sources (most pointedly the French after Imbula had a good spell in the Marseille team) and this looked to be, as it turned out, a massive coup for the Potters. As with any player entering the Premier League for the first time, it was expected for the player to request time to adapt to the pace and physicality of the team.
Imbula has, at the time of writing this, played seven games for Stoke City: winning four, drawing one and losing two (however he was the stand-out Stoke player in that Everton game). He’s been hailed as one of Stoke’s best performers during this period and has caught the eye of people further afield than Stoke City and the Premier League. But what exactly has Gianelli added to the Potters’ team that wasn’t there during the first half of the season?
Imbula has produced some of the most proficient passing displays that Stoke fans have seen: he’s got a passing accuracy of 88%, bettered only by Afellay and Peter Odemwingie (however Peter only has completed 43 passes, Imbula 391 in his seven games). With all of the passes he’s made, he it yet to be guilty to be recognised for a single defensive error. The argument may have been made by outsiders that Imbula is one of those players more concerned with his passing stats than the success of the team and won’t play the ball forward; au contraire, 66.8% of his passes have been forward.
What Stoke have been missing the most, however, is effectively shifting the ball from back to front. When not on the counter-attack, Stoke struggled to catch teams by surprise, forcing them to backpedal and causing them new types of problems; forcing a slower build up play and leaving themselves for the counter. Imbula brings a unique style of drive through the Stoke midfield: despite only being in the Premier League for 6 weeks, he isn’t afraid to carry the ball from back to front by himself. Here some of the remarkable stats that show off Imbula’s talent:
|[Since 06/02/16, Imbula’s first eligible game]||Amount||Rank in club||Rank in PL Midfielders||Rank in PL||Rank in Top 5 Leagues Midfielders||Rank in Top 5 Leagues|
|Successful take-on %||73||1st||6th [10 or more]||9th [10 or more]||16th [10 or more]||24th [10 or more]|
|Avg successful take-ons per game||4.1||1st||2nd [10 or more total]||2nd [10 or more total]||5th [10 or more total]||7rd [10 or more total]|
(Stats from www.squawka.com)
Some pretty awesome stats right? Not only can he pass the ball very well, but he can cut through the midfield like a knife through hot butter, perhaps having the opportunity to create something more meaningful than he would have done back in his own half. A fantastic example of this is Stoke’s first goal against Watford this month:
The move starts off with a good passing build-up around the backline involving seven of the Stoke team, and finished with a good ball out wide from Afellay, a teasing cross across the six yard box from Phil Bardsley and a hammering finish from Walters. But it could be argued that this move wouldn’t have even materialised (or left our own half) without the powerful run from Imbula which see him break into the Watford half, catch the opponents by surprise and start a lethal attack on the Watford goal. There are times when the forward pass just isn’t on for a guy in deep midfield and he’s they’re forced to pass it wide, backwards or lofted deep towards the opposing defence. Imbula’s flair means that attacks can stem from a new source and, if he’s successful in his dribbles, provide a type of attack that defenders have nightmares about.
The most surprising and promising factor about Imbula is that even though he’s brand-new to the Premier League, suffering slightly from the language barrier his new culture surrounds him in and that he’s 23 years of age: his impact on Stoke City has been enormous. With game time, a good pre season, time bonding with his new team-mates and time settling into his new life in England: Gianelli has plenty of room to develop his game and has the chance to become a Stoke icon. It’s fantastic to see young, high potential players such as Bojan, Shaqiri, Jack Butland and Imbula all commit themselves to the Potters’ cause and, on top of that, they seem happy to be here.
Stoke City’s in a very good place right now, but there’s still plenty more to look forward to.
By Ben Rowley
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