In October 2009, at 17 yrs, 1 month and 4 days, Gianelli Imbula took on the field for France’s second division ‘Ligue 2’ club Guingamp against Dijon and became the youngest player to do so in the process. Five years later, he is labelled the next ‘Makelele’ and is attracting admirers all over Europe.
Who is Gianelli Imbula?
Born 12 September 1992, Gibert ‘Gianelli’ Imbula represents French club Marseille in Ligue 1. Imbula’s youth career included a spell with Marseille’s arch-rivals Paris Saint-Germain, but he eventually went on to settle at Guingamp in 2007. Two years later, he got his first senior call-up and became the youngest player to take the field in the division. The Belgium born defensive midfielder was at Stade du Roudourou for six years making over 100 appearances. After helping his side get promoted to the first division last year, he was voted the ‘Best Player of Ligue 2’ in May 2013. Guingamp fans wanted their prized asset to stay with the club but were not surprised when a bigger club came calling for the talented midfielder. Marseille signed Imbula for around €8m in the summer of 2013.
In Marseille’s poor 2013-14 season, where they finished sixth in the league and without European football, Imbula featured in 27 league matches- 11 starts and 16 substitute appearances- and 4 European appearances- 3 as a starter and 1 as a substitute. He scored one goal for his side last season.
His performances were noteworthy and scouts were being sent to watch the talented midfielder who had the potential to become one of the biggest in the business. Chelsea, along with Arsenal, were most notably showing an interest in the French player.
This season, he has started all of Marseille’s nine league matches so far and has two goals to his name. He has been an integral part of Marcelo Bielsa’s league-topping, courtesy seven wins on the trot, side.
Imbula is of African descent and was eligible to play for the The Democratic Republic of Congo while also having the option of playing for his country of birth, Belgium. But the 22-year-old has instead taken up the option of plying his international trade with the French national team, in an era where the youngsters coming through from the country are among the best in the world in their age group. The midfielder has already appeared for the U-20 side, quickly making a transition into the U-21 side with a senior team call up imminent based on his displays this season.
Gianelli Imbula was in third position at the 2014-15 End of Season Ligue 1 awards, as voted for by Outside of the Boot’s readers, in the Youngster of the Season category. The Marseille man was also named in the Talent Radar U-22 Ligue 1 Team of the Season 2014-15. He has appeared in Outside of the Boot‘s Talent Radar Team of the Week and Talent Radar Player Rankings as well, in the midfielder’s category.
Style of Play, Strengths and Weaknesses
Physically powerful and strong in the tackle, Imbula is of big physique, standing at 6’1”, primarily played in the defensive midfielder role in Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille side.
He possesses very good pace, is comfortable on the ball with excellent technique and the ability to go forward. Like a true defensive midfielder, Imbula focuses on the defensive aspect of his game. There is no doubt that he can do well in attacks and he has a sweet finish too, but the Marseille man doesn’t like to digress from his primary duties and is more attentive towards that. He sits in front of the defence, and provides an excellent shield for Morel and co.
He likes to control the midfield and at 22 years of age, has good leadership as well as organizational skills that add up to his talent and help him be the midfield general the team needs him to be. Bielsa has recently preferred the 4-2-3-1 system which requires the two-man midfield to be on top of its game. The 22 year old also provides impetus to the attack by regularly linking up with Alaixys Romao in the midfield and Payet, Ayew, Thauvin (among others) in the attack. He has an admirable pass success percentage of 89.1% which signifies his control over the ball and his neat distribution, which is only helped by his great vision in the game. It has been observed that the 22 year old favours short passes to his team-mates, which bring a lot of tempo in the game and also help his side retain possession and create pressure. Imbula also dribbles well, which adds to his game.
The Frenchman is particularly aggressive and strong in his tackles- a feature of his game that stands out.
He has won 64% of his average duels, highest in the outfield players to have played more than 4 games. He has created 11 goal scoring chances (only Payet and Mendy have more) and has two goals to his name which shows that the Belgium born player can clearly contribute to that side of the game. Actually, the fact that he is pretty good in attack, has the mind and awareness to create attacking threat, sees him look more like a box-to-box midfielder for the future, someone more in the Vieira mould than Makelele.
The fact that Marseille so far have four clean-sheets (in nine games), is also a testament to Imbula’s individual skill (of course, it is eventually the work of the team that counts, but these do signify the control he has over the defensive duties of the side).
There are no considerable weaknesses in his game– this is not to suggest that the player is so good that his game is void of any glitches. Rather he is raw. This is the season where the 22 year old has to establish himself as the senior member of the squad, both in terms of playing as well as maturity. Apparently, he was dropped from the French Under-21s team for a breach of discipline, after saying “something inappropriate” to a staff member. This clearly shows that the player has scope of improvement both on and off the field. Imbula stands at 6 ft and with that kind of a height and an imposing physical stature, he should perhaps work on his heading skills. This will add further to his game. The regista is supposed to also fire inch-perfect passes from the centre of the pitch to every corner, and this is another area Imbula can strengthen. The 22 year old doesn’t play too many long passes, so it is difficult to understand if he is good or accurate with them. To be even more indispensable to his side, this is another facet to his game he can strengthen.
If he can continue his present form, there is no reason why he can’t become one of the best in the trade. Clearly, he is absolutely thriving at the moment and in Marseille’s good form, he has found his best touch. If Imbula can continue in the current fashion, he would surely be giving Paul Pogba, a reason to worry about his spot in the French National Squad.
Under Marcelo Bielsa, one player who’s performances have increased dramatically is that of midfield dynamo Gianelli Imbula. Last season after joining from Ligue 2 side Guingamp, the youngster failed to live up to his potential and lost his place at OM and the France under-21 side.
This season he looks like a man reborn. His long strides help him ghost past opponents, he has become a driving force in Bielsa’s high-tempo midfield and he has even added an attacking edge to his game.
Still only 22, this is the player Marseille hoped he could become. If he continues to show the same work rate and new found confidence, he could become one of Europe’s best midfielders.
Written by Aakriti Mehrotra