Does the journey from non-League to the Premier League justify the player he became?
Is Yannick Bolasie misunderstood? A player who started out in the 9th tier of English football with FC Hillingdon Borough playing semi-professionally in the Spartan South Midlands Football League is a far cry from where he plies his trade today.
Should the romanticism of his story soften the blow of criticism he’s received for his erratic playing style, or should we as African football fans appreciate the struggle he’s had to go through in England despite being labelled inconsistent at best?
From Bristol to London
Let’s begin his journey in 2013 after he’d made his big move from Bristol City to promotion candidates, Crystal Palace for around £1million. Mind you, his stats at The Robbins read as follows:
One goal and no assists in 25 appearances.
However, he wasn’t brought to Selhurst Park for mere goals and assists, he was bought because of his ‘X’ factor and mesmerizing skill. And to his credit, he became one of Ian Holloway’s most important cogs as the Eagles gained Premier League promotion during their dramatic playoff run.
To reach the playoff final, they had to beat a stubborn Brighton & Hove Albion side at the Amex Stadium. With the game and the tie deadlocked at 0-0 with 30 minutes still play, the DRC international came on to replace the misfiring Jonathan Williams.
Within seven minutes of his introduction, his gloriously weighted cross found fellow African teammate, Wilfred Zaha, who headed Palace into the lead. Zaha would bag his brace just before fulltime as the South London side reached the final.
“Whatever information you gave to him, he would soak it up like a sponge, take it and get better with it,” Ian Holloway said after the win according to The Athletic.
“That was the joy. He didn’t moan at me when I didn’t have him in the team. What I did keep on to him (about was), ‘If you keep going to the byline on your left, I want you to chop back onto your right now and again,’ and he did it to perfection.”
The Premier League
Despite these kind words from his manager, Bolasie played no part in the final as they gained promotion to the English top-flight after defeating Watford 1-0 at Wembley.
By the end of the 2012/2013 campaign, the winger had ended the season with three goals and seven assists, quiet an improvement by way of production.
“He always had this bright smile and always wanted to work and better himself,” former captain Mile Yedinak remarked.
“He was always positive and if the result had gone against us he would be the one saying things that were positive, doing things that were positive and never hiding or shirking, so he was an absolute joy. That’s all I can say. He was totally and utterly determined to get better and work hard, he was obsessed with it and it was so refreshing and so full of zest, he lifted everybody.”
Once in the big time, Palace got off to a rough start prompting the club to sack Holloway after seven straight losses.
The Pulis appointment and the persistent problems
The appointment of Tony Pulis initially was seen as potentially detrimental to Bolasie’s playing style. Renowned for his tactical discipline and defensive approach, the free-flowing attacker took to his system without any complaints, a rare attitude among professional footballers according to former Crystal Palace first-team coach, Ben Garner.
“In order to be reliable and get picked every week (at that level), he had to adapt his game and get those elements into it. You don’t play as a wide player for Tony Pulis if you’re not going to track the full-back and do your defensive job. He was a virtual ever-present.”
Without finding the back of the net, his 2013/14 campaign was bookended by his second-half performance against Liverpool famously named, ‘Crystanbul’, after assisting Dwight Gale’s first of two goals to effectively end Brenden Rogers’ title hopes at the encounter ended 3-3.
This was one of five assists he gathered in 30 appearances, and although those close to him said he continued learning and developing, it seemed as though his mistakes continued in without a hitch. Misplaced passes, one stepover too many, and a cluster of over or underhit crosses and shots off target was his norm.
“There’s no doubting his ability to go past two or three people, but sometimes you draw two or three people towards you because of that ability,” said former Palace assistant coach, Gerry Francis.
“When that happens, one pass can beat all three and take them all out the game. So it’s about having that judgment and forethought, that football knowledge, to know when and where to deliver the ball. You need to be calm when you make that decision.
“You have to be focused and relaxed, rather than letting the adrenaline just take over. He’d often try that one extra dribble, or try to take that one man too many, and lose it,” the ex-Tottenham Hotspur boss added.
Would 2014/15 yield better end product?… Yes
Four goals, three of them coming in one match against Sunderland who would scrap and survive relegation by the skin of their teeth, and an impressive 11 assists from the flank seemed to mark a turning point for the then 26-year-old.
Looking more and more like the player we expected to see, this was the season where he whipped out some of the most iconic tricks England has ever seen, like slapping the pitch with his hand and leaving Dejan Lovern bamboozled among others, the skill and production levels finally performed in sync.
This form would carry into his final season in the blue and red, as he would enjoy his most prolific scoring spell, with six and five assists which piqued interest from Roland Koeman’s Everton who would pay a hefty fee of £25million.
The Everton stall and loan-journer
Taking a step-up by way of joining the Toffees in the summer of 2016, there were high expectations, but with two goals and four assists in 33 appearances, a similar story of inconsistency and questionable decision-making continued to persist. His long-term knee injury he sustained at Goodison Park also didn’t help his cause in Merseyside rendering him surplus to requirements for the most part.
Now at 31, having had loan spells at Aston Villa, RSC Anderlecht, and Sporting Lisbon, will he be part of Carlo Ancelotti’s plans or must we concede that his ability was limited and that he reached his level at the lower echelons of the Premier League football?