Stoke City opened the purse strings at the start of February with a club record £18.3 million transfer for 23 year old midfielder Giannelli Imbula, who makes his second change of location this season after flopping with Porto following a pricey summer move from Marseille.
Who is Giannelli Imbula?
Born in Belgium to Congolese parents, the Paris-raised Imbula rose up the ranks of French football as a youngster, appearing on the national U20 and U21 sides as he settled in at Marseille by age 20. Appearing largely as a sub in his first Ligue 1 season of 2013-14, Imbula managed only one goal and no assists with a mere three shots on target. Starting regularly in his second season, he grew more comfortable pushing forward in 2014-15, contributing two goals and two assists, with 12 SOTs among 49 shots taken.
While a big, strong defensive midfielder by trade, Imbula notably had more fouls suffered than conceded in each season at Marseille. He has developed a well-rounded, box-to-box style demonstrating composed, skilled dribbling and passing highlighted by an attack-minded burst of speed along with the occasionally dangerous shot from distance.
Unfortunately, after great success at Marseille, Imbula did not fit in with Porto, playing irregularly and failing to make it on the score sheet for beleaguered manager Julen Lopetegui despite a high profile transfer. Don a pair of rose-colored glasses, though, and what you see in Imbula is a young Yaya Toure or Patrick Vieira as you realize why Porto and Stoke City were keen on keeping the promising youngster away from even bigger clubs.
What are Mark Hughes and Stoke City doing, or at least trying to do?
Marseille, Porto and Stoke City. Which of that trio seems out of place? Marseille won France's Ligue 1 as recently as 2009-10 and was runner-up in 2012-13. Porto won the Champions League in 2003-04 and the Europa League in 2010-11. Meanwhile, Stoke City has made it to European competition just once since 1975, finishing between 9th and 14th in the Premier League each season since earning promotion in 2008.
But perhaps this follows a pattern. Recognize another list of three? Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Stoke City. That is the progression for Xherdan Shaqiri, who joined the team last summer after underutilized spells with the German and Italian giants. The dazzling Swiss winger has delivered on his promise for the English squad, albeit while enduring nagging injury spells.
Maybe more aptly, though, consider yet one more triad: Andre Ayew, Dimitri Payet and Imbula, who played together in midfield for Marseille in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Coming to the Premier League last summer, winger Ayew (8 goals, 1 assist for Swansea) and central midfielder Payet (6 goals, 4 assists for West Ham) made immediate impacts, bursting onto the scene impressively for their British sides.
Stoke City had already added players with strong international pedigrees on the offensive side, with Marco Arnautovic (Twente, Inter Milan and Werder Bremen) coming over in 2013 and Bojan Krkic (Barcelona, Roma, Milan and Ajax) joining in 2014. A couple of other transfers, Ibrahim Afellay and Joselu, have failed to make as much of an impact as was hoped but have not exactly been busts. Midfielder Afellay has made 15 starts out of his 22 games, with no goals and one assist to his credit. While striker Joselu has notched a pair of scores to go along with an assist, he has only stared 6 games among his 13 appearances.
The vision to transform Stoke City from a very English, old-fashioned plodding defensive mindset to an international style with a more attractive mix of stoutness and attacking flair has added two more important pieces this season in the form of Shaqiri and Imbula. However, it is decidedly unclear whether a successful change will actually take hold.
At the moment, Stoke City sits at 11th place in the table. It owes being even that high almost entirely to Jack Butland and the back line, as Stoke has managed to score only 24 goals, which is more than only West Brom. Stoke is struggling mightily on both ends of the pitch, being shut out in each of its past four games and losing its last three games by a combined score of 9-0. Is a better defense the answer? Better offense? At this point, Hughes would surely gladly take either, and Imbula provides the possibility of help in both respects. Ultimately, Imbula offers an avenue for either a possession-based approach or a counter-attacking style, offering flexibility based on the opposition and on Stoke's personnel with respect to injury/availability.
Where does Imbula fit in the Stoke scheme and is he worth consideration for your fantasy team?
In Stoke's recent 3-0 home loss at Manchester United, Hughes adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation that was not unusual per se. The odd part came via the particular players utilized. Glenn Whelan and Afellay occupied defensive midfield while Arnautovic, Bojan and Jonathan Walters offered support of Peter Crouch, with the latter four offensive-minded players lacking much in the way of defensive cover.
Enter Imbula. In the past weekend's 3-0 home defeat to Everton, the starting line-up involved Imbula and Whelan as defensive midfielders as part of ostensibly the same 4-2-3-1 formation, while Afellay worked with wingers Arnautovic and Shaqiri in support of Mame Diouf. Bojan, Crouch and Walters, meanwhile, were on the bench.
The result was another dreadful defeat, but while many players could be faulted, Imbula was not one of them. He attempted two shots (the only other player with more than one was Diouf who had three), though neither found the target as Stoke managed a meager total of three SOTs for the game out of 12 tries. While obviously frustrated with his side's overall performance, Hughes was impressed with the newcomer, noting in the post-game presser, "The one positive we'll take out was Giannelli Imbula...Throughout the game he wanted to get on the ball, his passing was accurate and I don't think he misplaced a pass in the whole 90 minutes."
The problem with defensive midfielders in fantasy rears its ugly head in Official BPL, which relies heavily on goals and assists to return value for the midfield position. Imbula may give you something in the way of the hockey assist (the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal), but that does not translate to fantasy success in the Official format. Imbula costs 5.0, which is certainly affordable. However, fellow Stoke midfielder Whelan costs much less (4.3) and can be expected to give you roughly the same production, while Arnautovic costs 6.5 with a significantly higher return expected. As for other midfielders around the league, Norwich's Wes Hoolahan (4.7), Sunderland's Yann M'Vila (5.0) and Leicester's Marc Albrighton (4.9) and N'Golo Kante (5.0) stand out as more attractive, and more proven, options at a similar price point.
In Fantrax, though, Imbula is tempting at the bargain-basement price of 1.000. Unfortunately, though, he returned a big fat donut score in his first game, with the aforementioned two off-target shots along with two fouls conceded, one foul drawn, one corner forced and a whole lot of nothing otherwise. But if you are looking to free up funds for big purchases elsewhere utilizing a bargain midfielder who looks set to start from here on out and should be able to return value and then some, you're going to have a difficult time finding too many near the price of Imbula. (Newcastle's Andros Townsend comes to mind as another.) Whelan has averaged 4.32 points per game for the season and Afellay has returned 2.14 ppg overall and 5.2 ppg over his past five games; would you take something like that for the price of 1.00?
Stoke's fixture list over the next several weeks is favorable, particularly the next three games: at Bournemouth, v. Aston Villa, v. Newcastle, at Chelsea, v. Southampton. Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Newcastle are all among only five sides that have allowed 40 or more goals.
The hope is that Hughes will push Imbula further up the pitch as a central midfielder, where he will have more chances to create on the offensive end. However, it may be wise to peruse the starting line-ups over the next couple/few weeks to see where he plays as well as to see if Stoke City can deliver an offensive spark before buying in on Imbula. At the very least, it would be nice to see Imbula gather a few phantom points in Fantrax.
The Potters are in a big mess at the moment, unable to implement a consistent, cohesive plan of attack. Imbula should provide an important part of the solution eventually, but eventuality is often known to take longer than we would prefer. Then again, sometimes all it takes it is a good run of games to get things going, and this next trio could just do the trick.