Gael Kakuta at 26: A frustrating tale of what could have been

Although he’ll likely be celebrating his 26th birthday in the ludicrously lavish way you’d expect of any modern-day millionaire footballer on their summer holidays, there must be a whispering voice in the back of Gael Kakuta’s mind today, asking where it all went wrong.

It’s rather incredible to think Chelsea once ran the risk of a twelve-month transfer ban in poaching the then-prodigious winger from Lens’ youth ranks; a decade on from the Blues’ alleged tap-up, Kakuta finds himself essentially surplus to requirements at Hebei China Fortune, loaned out for the second half of the European season after the Chinese Super League tightened up on its foreign player quota in January.

Manuel Pellegrini deemed unknown Brazilian striker Aloisio, the ageing Ezequiel Lavezzi, former QPR flop Stephane Mbia, much-maligned one-time Arsenal man Gervinho and (perhaps more understandably) ex-Juventus playmaker Hernanes as more valuable assets upon being obliged to trim his expensively-acquired foreign cohort down to five at the start of 2017.

No doubt, however, Kakuta was unquestionably one of the most exciting young players in the world when Chelsea lured him to west London, and even more so when he started breaking into the first team two years later.

Michael Ballack allegedly once instructed German journalists to “go and see the French lad, he is the star” after playing alongside Kakuta in a reserves clash and shortly after making him the youngest ever player to represent Chelsea in the Champions League, Carlo Ancelotti – unquestionably one of the greatest managers of his era – described the teenager as ‘the future’ of the club.

Some around Stamford Bridge even dubbed him ‘the Black Zidane’, a title that seemed particularly fitting after Kakuta inspired France to U19 European Championship glory in 2010, accordingly winning the tournament’s Golden Player award.

And it wasn’t just a matter of club insider hype and junior accolades, as is often the case with many youngsters in English football; even amid his four cameo appearances for the first team during the 2009/10 season, Kakuta’s impressive armoury of dribbling ability, balance, speed, creativity and goal threat stood out. Perhaps more importantly, he had the confidence to boot – one of his first acts upon his senior debut was to trick the ball past two Wolves players just outside the penalty area and drill a shot marginally wide of the post.

Why Kakuta never successfully transitioned from a young player of incredible, almost unprecedented promise into one of football’s leading entities remains a matter of great debate. Some would argue there was simply too much pressure on him to perform, something the controversy surrounding his transfer to Stamford Bridge inevitably amplified. Likewise, questions must inevitably be asked of his attitude as well – particularly whether he had the right mindset to handle his obvious ability.

Others, however, would claim Kakuta was amongst the first significant casualties of Chelsea’s money-spinning loan system, which saw a staggering 21 players farmed out last season, even becoming one of the earlier Blues players to join feeder club Vitesse Arnhem.

Indeed, Kakuta’s first-team opportunities drastically dried up when Ancelotti left Chelsea in summer 2011, the club seemingly changing their strategy of how to best aid his development. In fact, he’d never make a senior appearance for the club again, despite remaining on the books for another four years. The Frenchman spent that time loaned out to a variety of clubs spanning five top flights, ranging from Fulham and Bolton in the Premier League to Lazio in Serie A and Rayo Vallecano in Spain.

As we’ve seen from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, even explosive form for adoptive clubs isn’t always enough to earn you promotion from the farming out brigade to Chelsea’s senior squad, but regardless, Kakuta didn’t reach anywhere near that level anyway. His first five loan spells produced the fruits of just 35 starts and seven goals, most of which were scored for Dijon in 2011/12 as they plummeted out of Ligue 1.

Clearly frustrated with the situation, Kakuta revealed in 2013 that he wanted to leave the club, stating that he no longer dreamt of playing for Chelsea, having grown tired of the chance to get on the pitch for ‘ten minutes a month’. The youngster would have to wait two more years, one of which included a more vibrant loan stint at Rayo where he claimed five goals and seven assists in 35 La Lia appearances, before finally getting the chance to leave the club permanently as a free agent.

He signed for Sevilla, the kind of club perfect for a young, derailed talent to get his career back on the right path, but made just five appearances across all competitions in sixth months before being flogged to the Chinese Super League for almost double the club’s original investment – a rather modest compensation fee.

Of course, the Far East has become the go-to destination for ageing, high-profile players of the European game looking for a final pay cheque, but at this point in his career, Kakuta was just 24. Based on Ancelotti’s theory, he should have been emerging as Chelsea’s star entity and one of the flagship names of the Premier League.

Fast forward to the present day, and even the Chinese Super League is looking to wash its hands of Kakuta, or at the very least his current employers Hebei China Fortune. Following the change in foreign player quota, restricting to five in a matchday squad and only three on the pitch at the same time, Kakuta returned to La Liga on loan with Deportivo for the second half of 2016/17.

He made two appearances, scoring twice and setting up once but averaging just one shot per game, 1.5 dribbles per game and one chance created every two games. Pretty poor returns for a tricky winger, especially one whose staggering potential once almost saw Chelsea feel the full force of UEFA’s wrath.

Of course, great players can come to the fore at different ages; there is no absolute rule that means Kakuta can’t still reach the very top of the game – especially considering how naturally talented a player he clearly was as a teenager. But at this point, it’s hard to imagine not just a scenario where that could happen but perhaps more damningly, a club that would give him the platform to do so.

Caught in no-man’s land, between largely negative stigmatisms in Europe and a league that have legislated him out of the picture, Kakuta’s 26th Birthday is one of great uncertainty looking to the future, and likely great regret looking back at the past.

But as is always the case whenever a youngster doesn’t progress to the levels expected, there are quite simply no winners here; Kakuta didn’t get the career he wanted, Chelsea didn’t get the world-class player they wanted, the Premier League didn’t get another flagship star and even Hebei China Fortune have missed out on the once-prodigious attacker they signed from Sevilla. For everybody involved, Kakuta’s career thus far has been one of endless and relentless frustration.

WIN! Take our survey below for a chance to win your favourite club’s new 17/18 home or away shirt…