Zakaria Bakkali – Worth the hype?

As football has done time and time again, 90 minutes can turn a previously unknown young player into ‘the next big thing’. All it takes is that one hour and half.

Ninety minutes on the 10th of August, 2013 turned Zakaria Bakkali from a diminutive 5’5″ Belgian kid at PSV into the ‘next Eden Hazard’, suddenly under the scrutiny of the media.

Only three days earlier, he had started to scratch at the surface of the instant stardom that any half-decent teenage player is promised in these times, with a fantastically-taken volley in PSV’s Champions League qualifier vs SV Zulte-Waregem.

But given the opportunity to start in the frontline again in the meeting with NEC , Bakkali went on to terrorise the Nijmegen defence with his bursts of acceleration and pace as well as close ball control and dribbling. He carved himself into the hall of fame, becoming the youngest ever player to score a hattrick in the Eredivisie and burst the bubble of obscurity to establish his status as hot property in Europe. His fame spread even as far as Marc Wilmots – who probably also had former teammate and apparent mentor Dries Mertens whispering into his ear – and the Belgian national manager called Bakkali up for a friendly against France,  though he had to pull out at the end due to an injury.

What this kind of fame also does is usher a host of foreign clubs and their interest, to lay their hands and scoop up the next big star as a lot of clubs these days prefer bringing in young players that have not reached their peak yet but will do in a few years and hopefully continue to bring success to the club.

Only this summer, Bakkali has already been linked to numerous top clubs, including Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal, Valencia and most recently, Atletico Madrid and Lille.

And while many consider him a top talent after his displays at the start of last season, not many consider the fact that since that three-goal-haul, Bakkali has had a grand total of zero goals or assists to his name though he can be credited with brewing a dispute with trainer Philip Cocu.

Still only 18, Bakkali has found himself behind Luciano Narsingh and eventually loanee Bryan Ruiz in the pecking order, but he seems to possess an ego beyond his years.

PSV’s technical director Marcel Brands and coach Philip Cocu have openly voiced out praises for Bakkali in the past and being a great champion of youth, Cocu no doubt has Bakkali in his future plans even if he didn’t feature in the ex-Dutch international’s side all too regularly towards the end.

However, the youngster, entering the final year of his contract, has rejected PSV’s approach to extend the deal and has consequently been demoted to train with the reserves until a decision can be reached. The way things have panned out have not been particularly favourable in terms of a PSV perspective, especially after Cocu announced a few months back that he was confident Bakkali would sign the extension and stay with the Eindhoven club.

In terms of ability, Bakkali does provide cause for certain Eden Hazard comparisons – he is ambidextrous (though he prefers his right), can play on either wing and has both pace and dribbling ability in his arsenal. His diminutive stature gives him a low centre of gravity, as well as an ability to change directions while accelerating, which certainly is aided by his close control and relative  calmness on the ball for a boy of his age. The Belgian of Moroccan descent is certainly not particularly afraid to take a shot either.

However, Bakkali’s most conspicuous weakness – at least on field – is his lack of defensive ability, something quintessential for every winger in today’s fast-paced modern game. It is not just the actual defending skill he lacks but an overall defensive awareness. He loses possession in key areas and leaves his defenders in a sticky predicament.

This particular facet of his play can definitely be remedied with the right kind of guidance, but an inherent problem with Bakkali seems to be his attitude. He seems to be set to prove a point to Cocu for letting him fall down the line of succession and appears to want to do that by forcing a move away from the Netherlands.

There are no lack of suitors for the 18-year-old and all of them are bigger clubs than PSV, where the demand for success is much higher, the standard of football arguably more competitive and hence, the patience for Bakkali’s mistakes (which are necessary for his growth as a player) might be less than at PSV and in the Eredivisie – probably the best breeding ground for players of his age group in Europe. His response to being benched by Cocu does not herald the most positive of signs about the mental strength and outlook he has either, which raises the question of how he would react in such a scenario at a bigger club.

As of the 30th of July, Brands has confirmed that Atletico are seriously interested in Bakkali but still does not see the Belgian moving abroad, though PSV may be inclined to take a deal.

At this moment, it does look unlikely but for Bakkali, staying at PSV would be the safer option. The bridges have not been completely incinerated, but they are burning slowly, and with the right kind of work ethic (and putting pen-to-paper as soon as possible), Bakkali can re-affirm himself in the PSV squad. Cocu has successfully managed to integrate a previously-troublesome-teenager in Memphis Depay into the first team and make him the central attacking force of the team, and Depay has improved quite a bit over the course of last season. He even earned himself a spot in Louis van Gaal’s World Cup squad and went on to be one out of three nominees for the Hyundai Best Young Player of the World Cup, losing out to France’s Juventus star Paul Pogba. There is no saying he could not do this with Bakkali too, but for that, Bakkali has to be more receptive and willing to accept the coach’s decisions.

At a bigger club, it is unlikely that this kind of mutiny will be easily overlooked and it is extremely likely that in such circumstances, Atletico might find it easy to loan him out for him to earn his spot in the squad back. After all, you have to realise that Bakkali still has not completed an entire season as a starter at PSV in the Eredivisie and has been a sent on as a substitute more often than not to take advantage of tired legs. Towards the end, Bakkali did not even make the matchday squad.

Bakkali has the skills in his locker to definitely make it big in football, despite the high competitiveness between the increasing number of inverted left wingers. However, we will only see that if there are tweaks to the Belgian’s approach and attitude, which could take long or be imminent.

It’s a tumultuous time in the career and development of Bakkali. If he can get some clarity on his future and put the attitude problems behind him, he will go far. Otherwise, he’ll be just another bright talent who disappears into obscurity.

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