The Curious Case of Zakaria Bakkali

Less than a year ago, the young Belgian was hyped as one of the most exciting players in Eredivisie. Now, he’s available for a knock-down fee on the transfer market. How did this happen?

Belgium is one of the most interesting national teams today. The federal monarchy in Western Europe, with a population of around 11 million people, has had an amazing turnaround in it’s football development during the last few years. They are currently producing plenty of fantastic talents.

The 18-year-old winger Zakaria Bakkali is one of those. He started getting recognition across Europe during the season 13/14 after his breakthrough in PSV Eindhoven’s first team. A personal highlight of his career so far was the hat trick against NEC Nijmegen. It wasn’t just a case of a few lucky goals; he put them in brilliantly. This meant he became the youngest player ever to score a hat trick in the Eredivisie.

Everybody could see the qualities of the young Belgian. He’s very quick, skilled and not afraid of taking initiative. He also has a low point of gravity which enables him to slide past bigger defenders. Some people have compared to him to Eden Hazard as he’s right footed and usually plays on the left wing. It’s easy to understand that comparison. But, unlike Hazard did at Lille, Bakkali has not yet found a consistent performance level at PSV.

The hat trick was obviously a great moment for Bakkali in the early stages of the 13/14 season, but he couldn’t keep up the success during the entire season. That was also why he was hardly mentioned in the World Cup squad discussion, despite getting his first international cap for Belgium in October 2013. Others players – especially Adnan Januzaj – managed to perform on a much more consistent level. It made a lot of sense for the Belgium manager Marc Wilmots to select Januzaj rather than Bakkali for the trip to the World Cup in Brazil.

One of the reasons why Bakkali didn’t manage to perform on a consistent level was the controversy surrounding his contract situation. The fact that his current contract expires in the Summer 2015 meant PSV really wanted him to sign an extension. However, Bakkali is still rejecting their attempts to extend which is making the situation tense. Bakkali’s mentality on the pitch has been criticized by PSV officials and I believe they have put themselves in a difficult situation.

A few months ago in a friendly against the South Korean side Gyeongnam, Bakkali was substituted 15 minutes in the game. During his post-match interview, the PSV interim-manager Ernest Faber explained that the youngster repeatedly ignored his defensive instructions. Despite a rocky relationship with the player, a long-term contract offer still on the table. You have to wonder why they are offering him a long-term contract if they really doubt his talent. It’s unlikely that the criticism has had a positive effect on Bakkali who must be keen on leaving the club. I don’t think he had been treated well by PSV, even though it’s impossible to know exactly what has been going on behind the scenes. Of course, you can understand clubs’ frustration when players are unwilling to extend. However, to publicly criticize players after subbing them early in friendly games seems like a rather unintelligent negotiation tactic. It certainly didn’t convince Bakkali to extend and it hasn’t raised his value on the transfer market.

Dutch media claim that Bakkali is available for around £2 million which is an amazingly low fee for a player of his potential. That fee means he could represent a real bargain for the big clubs as it’s basically peanuts for them. Clubs such as Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Liverpool have been linked with Bakkali during the last months. There’s talk that he might sign for a big club and imminently move elsewhere on loan. That would make a lot of sense as he needs to get more experience and find a more consistent level of play before he’s ready for a big club.

In contrast to Bakkali’s season, teammate Memphis Depay consistently played well for the club. This saw the player called up for Netherlands’ squad in the recently concluded World Cup. While the 20-year-old’s maturity over Bakkali is currently evident, I have a feeling that the latter would end up being the better player in 4-5 years.

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