After joining FC Porto last summer with a healthy reputation and a substantial transfer fee to match, few would have expected Giannelli Imbula’s time in Portugal to have unfolded quite as it has done so far.
The Frenchman found his name associated to various clubs in both Italy and Spain prior to his eventual transfer, so it was no wonder that Porto winning the race to his signature was considered as somewhat of a coup for ‘Os Dragões’.
However, fast-forward six months and Imbula is now rumoured to be making a swift exit from Portuguese territory, so just where did it all go wrong for the most expensive player in Porto’s history?
Imbula’s summer of woes
Despite failing to qualify for the UEFA Champions League with Olympique Marseille, Imbula was one of many players to have excelled under the management of Marcelo Bielsa in the 2014/2015 season. However, failure to guarantee their presence amongst Europe’s elite essentially meant Marseille would have to explore the prospect of selling some of their most prized assets. Sure enough, the Ligue 1 club lost Dimitri Payet, André Ayew and André-Pierre Gignac all for nominal fees in the same transfer window.
In Imbula, Marseille had a player who could restore some much needed funds in order to replace and maintain their own players, so there was little surprise that his name was being bounced around the market. Initially, Imbula had been tipped to follow in Paul Pogba’s footsteps and join a Serie A club, more specifically either Inter Milan or AC Milan, but a switch to the fashion capital was quickly scuppered when the ‘Nerazzurri’ opted for AS Monaco’s Geoffrey Kondogbia instead.
Atlético Madrid and Valencia were also touted as potential suitors, but the latter’s struggles to pin down the signing of São Paulo’s defender Rodrigo Caio meant they’d more than likely experience the same difficulties in signing Imbula. Before we knew it, the deal was off and Atlético also failed to follow up their initial interest. With no more illustrious clubs interested in his services, it seemed as though Imbula was to be left stranded at Marseille. That was the case until Porto entered the frame.
The Route to Porto
With Casemiro’s return to Real Madrid, it had been common knowledge that Porto were in search of an heir to the Brazilian’s throne in midfield. However, few would have expected the Portuguese giants to decimate their transfer record by bringing Imbula to the Estádio do Dragão for €20 million. Under closer inspection, it becomes easier to comprehend just how Porto afforded the Frenchman.
Although not officially confirmed by the club, popular belief will tell you that third party Doyen offered their services to broker the deal between Marseille and Porto. The group, perhaps best known for their dispute with Sporting over Marcos Rojo’s transfer to Manchester United, have very close ties with ‘Os Dragões’, meanwhile also engaging with Marseille. The need to liaise with Doyen made complete sense, but the transfer itself didn’t.
In the same window, Porto had already signed André André and Danilo Pereira; meanwhile the likes of Rúben Neves and Héctor Herrera also occupy the territory most would have expected Imbula to play in, and the Blue and Whites had also recalled central midfielder Sérgio Oliveira after his solid season on loan at Paços and brilliant showings at the U21 European Championship. Quite why Porto needed the 23-year-old, especially given his price tag, was a question that was left unanswered and the deal has come under even greater scrutiny since.
The buzz around Imbula should have been matched by performances that would put him in contention to make the France squad ahead of the Euro 2016 on home soil, but his troubles with injuries in the early stages saw him play sporadically, and not very well at all. Overall, Imbula has just 10 Liga NOS appearances and has failed to leave his mark in most of his outings. Interestingly enough, Imbula started in five of Porto’s six Champions League games in the group stages, which could go some way into confirming his status at the club.
Having failed to pin down a regular spot in the starting line-up, it’s plausible to believe that Imbula has featured in the Champions League, the grandest stage in club football, in an attempt to attract interest. Whether that was the manager’s voluntary choice is up for debate, but if we maintain the belief that Doyen aided the transfer financially, the general rule of thumb will tell you Imbula will one day leave Porto under profitable circumstances, therefore it’s imperative to play when all eyes are firmly placed on you. In Imbula’s case, his increased participation in the Champions League versus the diminished game time in the Primeira Liga leaves room to believe that he may leave sooner rather than later. After all, Porto already had an abundance of central midfielders prior to the Frenchman’s arrival.
Such have been the concerns surrounding Porto’s record signing that their iconic president, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, has come out publicly to offer his version of events on the transfer, among other topics. The 78-year-old revealed that it was the now sacked Julen Lopetegui that had asked the club to sign Imbula. In addition to that claim, Pinto da Costa stated that the former Porto boss had branded Imbula as a “Ferrari,” but he wasn’t aware that the ex-Marseille player was a “Ferrari that was meant to stay in the garage.”
Other sources will tell you that Lopetegui’s number one priority had been Sergi Darder, now at Olympique Lyonnais, but in any case, the words from Pinto da Costa serve as a form to clear his name of any wrongdoing in Imbula’s signature. Porto’s stance on Imbula confirms itself further as the days go by, with Stoke City now interested in bringing him to the Premier League, but from Imbula’s point of view, the feeling towards ‘Os Dragões’ may be mutual.
The interest in Imbula from Serie A and La Liga clubs last summer was well documented, so it’s not impossible to believe the midfielder was half expecting a move to one of the biggest and best leagues would come to fruition. It didn’t, and with Marseille looking to offload, perhaps the deal that took him to Porto was one that was somewhat forced upon him and his current club. Should that one day be confirmed as true, it would explain why Imbula’s form has taken such a sharp dip since his arrival.
At this moment in time, Pinto da Costa has confirmed the signing of Imbula wasn’t his idea, whereas reports throughout the summer indicate he wasn’t Lopetegui’s either. As per the player’s attitude and application, it would seem Porto also wasn’t Imbula’s preferred choice, so this was hardly a match made in heaven.
What next for Imbula?
It seems harsh to brand Imbula as yet another expensive flop, but you can have little doubt he’ll be remembered in such a way should he fail to turnaround his Porto career. Football can be unpredictable, but, unfortunately for him, it’s difficult to imagine a way back for Imbula in the current Porto fold. The players the club can count on have already been established by both Porto’s staff and the fans. Sadly, Imbula doesn’t appear to be one of them and the player’s attitude itself demonstrates that he’d rather be elsewhere.
Despite a string of below par performances, Imbula remains a very talented footballer with the potential to grow into a significant squad member for most of Europe’s biggest and best clubs. He possesses a solid passing range, the ability to shot from distance and very good physical attributes, but his spell in Portugal may well mean he has to take a step backwards before aspiring to move forwards again.
Should Porto lower their demands, a transfer to Stoke may well be the move Imbula needs to reignite his career. Not only would Imbula be joining a well-established team who could use a player of his ilk, the transfer also gives him the platform to showcase his skill in one of the best leagues in the world. Imbula’s time at Porto, after failing to join a desired club, is looking more and more like a pit-stop, so the sooner the club and player part ways, the better it shall be for both parties involved.
By Patrick Ribeiro