Giannelli Imbula says he felt like he was coming to the top of his game in his first few months at Stoke City – but it wasn’t too long before it ‘became inconceivable’ he could play for the club again.
The arrival, rise and fall of club record signing Imbula sits prominently in the story of the second half of Mark Hughes’ reign as manager; with the club going from established in the Premier League with an eye on trophies and Europe to relegation.
Imbula had been a signal of ambition when he joined from Porto in early 2016, days after the club had lost a League Cup semi-final on penalties to Liverpool.
He would play every game for the rest of the season and show glimpses of world star potential – but was bombed down the pecking order within weeks of the next campaign and became a costly ghost as he waded through uninspiring loan moves across Europe.
“You know it as much as I do, in football, there is the game and behind the scenes,” he said as he reflected on his career for France-based foottransfert.
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“A career is built on choices that are biased by the interests of clubs. Ideally, I would have liked to stay at Marseille but unfortunately the club was going through a difficult period and needed the money. I happened to be one of the players with the highest market value so they couldn’t afford to keep me.
“After Porto, I arrived in Stoke City at the end of January. It was for me, an opportunity to find playing time and access the English championship, knowing that the coach’s project was selling.
“The first few months went really well. I played every game, I scored, I felt in top form.
“When the next season started, unfortunately our results didn’t measure up against the talent in our squad. The coach had to make difficult choices, so for a year I played very few games. It was obvious to me I had to leave.”
He added: “I had many club proposals and I even had the opportunity to go to a large French club but Stoke City blocked me. Why? I do not know. I think that at that time, their financial interests took precedence. It was one of the most difficult moments of my career.
“After other low blows, without going into details, it was inconceivable to continue playing for them. I preferred to be loaned rather than staying at Stoke City.”
Imbula ventured out to Toulouse, who stayed up via a relegation play-off, Rayo Vallecano, who went down, and Lecce, who were in a fight to stay in Serie A.
But he said: “I still had good experiences from these experiences. I discovered different championships, different cultures, different ways of thinking about football.”
And then, in February, he ended his deal at Stoke with more than a year to spare and joined FC Sochi in Russia.
He said: “It was a relief to terminate my contract with Stoke City.
“After this difficult period, I went to FC Sochi because I needed to recharge my batteries, find pleasure and play time. The project is promising and life is good.
“I also knew that Adil (Rami) would be there so it was a good point for adaptation.”
Imbula is still only 27 and dreaming that he can one day rediscover the kind of performances he produced at Marseille under Marcelo Bielsa.
Bielsa, now in charge of Leeds United, is the only manager who has been able to devise a system to consistently get the best out of Imbula’s unique talents – while also covering the flaws in his game.
“I read an article a few days ago in which a player compared him to the Professor in Casa de Papel (the Netflix series Money Heist),” said Imbula.
“It made me smile because indeed, behind the genius of Bielsa hides a man concerned about the well-being of his players. He knew how to give me confidence in me. On bad nights, he had the right words to comfort us.
“In sporting terms, I have progressed a lot tactically thanks to him, especially in my movements, in the intensity of the game and in recovery. I am very grateful to him, he gave me the opportunity to show myself in my best light.”