The sight of Tiemoue Bakayoko sprinting toward the corner flag in celebration of a goal is not a common one. With just four career league strikes to his name from 80 appearances split between Rennes and Monaco, no manager has come to rely on him to make the breakthrough or notch a key goal—and rightly so.
It was only fitting, then, that in Monaco's frankly insane match with Manchester City in the Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday—the second of a two-legged affair inclusive of enough twists, turns, shocks and golazos to fill your belly for the entire season—he was the one to rise and plant the winning header past Willy Caballero's outstretched claw. It was a moment that defied logic, which was, of course, in keeping with a helter-skelter game.
As focus turns to which elite club will land the prize that is Bakayoko this summer, this moment needs to be forgotten; he's simply not the kind of player that single moment of glory might trick you into believing he is.
Bakayoko is no goalscoring midfielder and rarely threatens the penalty box with late runs, a la Frank Lampard. He's not even a Fernandinho type from the Brazilian's days back in Shakhtar Donetsk, where his piercing darts between the lines took his team from 0-60 mph in seconds.
He's a midfield destroyer, a crusher of attacks, a sentinel deployed in the centre of the park to wreak havoc. He's far more interested in breaking up opponents' attacks and runs than feeding his colleagues quickly to spark counter-attacks.
While his passing has improved significantly over the past three seasons, most of his day's work is done in the defensive and middle thirds; not often will he venture up and into the final third to impact.
And that makes him the perfect acquisition for a club like Manchester United.
Bleacher Report's Dean Jones revealed on Thursday that the Red Devils have made the most progress of any club in hashing out a deal for the 22-year-old. He's going to cost at least £25 million, but scouts are convinced he's the right fit for the club, having built a detailed file on him all season long.
In this scenario, "right fit" can only mean one thing: They're convinced he's the right man to play alongside Paul Pogba—United's existing young French central midfielder and current world's most expensive player, who is having an up-and-down season at the club.
The club must do whatever it takes to jumpstart Pogba's form and allow him to fulfil his outrageous potential in a red shirt, and it seems finding him the ideal partner is the chosen route.
B/R recently put together an expert's roundtable on why he's finding it so tough, with Paolo Bandini's comments perhaps the most pertinent: "He's not a natural fit in Mourinho's 4-2-3-1."
Mourinho briefly switched to a 4-3-3 shape earlier in the season, and suddenly Pogba blossomed, putting in excellent performances against Swansea City, Arsenal and West Ham United in succession, but the Portuguese has switched back, and now Pogba's form has dropped.
The sequence of events has revealed an awkward truth: Ander Herrera, who has arguably been Manchester United's best player this season, isn't the kind of midfielder who can coax the best from Pogba as, stylistically, he doesn't do what's required—at least not in a two-man midfield, anyway.
Herrera's a snappy, aggressive No. 8 who bounds about, creates turnovers high up to spark transitions and moves into attacking positions. What he does is impactful in its own right, and he's been consistently superb this term, but what Pogba needs next to him is a tactically savvy No. 6 who can cover the width of the pitch, break up play and feed attackers with forward passes quickly.
That's Bakayoko in a nutshell.
The 22-year-old has been playing an all-encompassing role in Monaco's attacking 4-4-2 this season, with he and Fabinho boasting the requisite physicality and technical talent to play against a man disadvantage and still come out on top.
It helps that Les Monegasques are direct in their approach, either finding Valere Germain to feet or Kylian Mbappe over the top with the first pass most of the time, but the main reason Bakayoko moves untroubled through the middle is that, in truth, opponents are terrified of him.
Physically he's on another level to most, his oaken build intimidating those who come near, but he also possesses a quickness in tight spaces that allows the occasional forward gallop, and his feet are far neater than many give him credit for. He doesn't do 50-50 challenges; they're always 70-30 in his favour.
Tactically he boasts an obvious understanding of where to be, and this is perhaps the most critical part of the process in searching for Pogba's partner: they need to be able to correctly interpret which spaces to occupy when the former Juventus man is given the freedom to drift around.
Bakayoko started his career as a No. 6 in a 4-3-3 at Rennes under Philippe Montanier and has now progressed to the point of holding half a midfield on his own at Monaco.
There should be more than enough confidence in him to balance the formation when Pogba goes on runs or darts, and if Mourinho persists with a 4-2-3-1, Bakayoko's the player United need in order to unlock the best from their £89 million man.
The ideal scenario, of course, is a reversion to the 4-3-3, with Bakayoko sat behind Herrera and Pogba. That offers steel and solidity in the No. 6 position and appropriate cover for the defensive line, combined with flair, aggression and dazzling dribbling skills a little further up.
Back in 2014, when Bakayoko was but a prospect impressing in his maiden senior campaign at Rennes, there were tentative hopes in Brittany that he could emulate Yann M'Vila. In hindsight, that's a low bar; we're well beyond that now, and Bakayoko represents the ready-made solution for an elite club's midfield that M'Vila will never be.
United's scouts have identified the perfect player; now, fans must hope Mourinho can finalise a deal.
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