Adel Taarabt is the genius English football never knew it had. The Moroccan thrived intermittently during an eight-year spell in which he represented Tottenham Hotspur, Queens Park Rangers and Fulham – between the bad choices, bad luck and not-so-subtle come-and-get-me pleas were moments of pure inspiration. There were deft one-touch assists, defence-dizzying dribbles, and composed finishes. But there was also a fundamental disagreement with the English game.
His managers wanted him to tackle, run, work; he wanted to enjoy the fineries of Seville, Madrid or Barcelona. Truthfully, as good as he occasionally was, Taarabt and English football were rarely on the same wavelength. He was never quite able to hide his hankering for something more, and he nearly fulfilled his dreams during a six-month loan spell with Milan. That move, like his eventual free transfer to Portuguese giants Benfica one year later, didn’t lead to the bigger things his flicks and tricks hinted at. However, having returned to Serie A, he is now back to his best self.
Over the last half-decade, Genoa have developed a special relationship with faded creators. In the summer of 2014 they brought in Diego Perotti and Iago Falque, two wingers who had failed to live up to their early billing in Spain and England. Both players enjoyed exceptional debut campaigns at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, subsequently earning multi-million-pound moves to Roma.
Former Liverpool reject Suso was brought in to fill the void left by their departures, joining on loan from Milan. He scored six goals before returning to San Siro and establishing himself as one of the finest attackers in Italy.
Perotti, Falque and Suso all benefitted from the calcio culture of team tactics over individualism that only becomes more prominent the further a player falls down Serie A. As attacking midfielders, they also benefitted from the specific tactical approach Genoa have employed in recent times. Under Gian Piero Gasperini and his disciple, Ivan Juric, back-three systems featuring No.10s were often favoured. This meant the playmaking trio were given relative freedom in attack so long as they carried out their defensive duties. The system would adhere to them so long as they adhered to the system.
The question for Taarabt when he joined in January 2017 was: Could he adhere? After all, his career up to that point had been defined by a gleeful non-conformism. Perhaps he had been misled by the description of ‘natural ability’ that tended to follow him around. In reality it takes a lot of hard work to appear effortlessly gifted, and the work is what Taarabt seemed averse to. But, after three years in the footballing wilderness, he came back hungrier than ever.
Last summer, he began to try again. He regained full fitness, shedding 11 kilogrammes, and asked Juric for another chance. He was given a week to prove his worth. Almost six months on and his humility has paid off. Juric was sacked last November and replaced by Davide Ballardini, but Taarabt remains a key player for Genoa.
At 28 years of age, perhaps motivated by the idea of his career petering out, he has modified his approach on and off the training ground. “I can say that I’ve never worked as hard as here in Genoa, So much running, so much of the ball, so much pressing,” he told local newspaper Il Secolo XIX. “I’ve changed everything. I eat well, I drink well, I live well. I go to bed early, by 11 o’clock I’m out.”
The early nights have enabled consistently productive performances. Generally playing behind a lone striker, Taarabt has been Genoa’s most consistent player.
Speaking later that month, he spoke of his new love for the game. “I feel reborn, I’ve found my football,” he said. Adel Taarabt is back, and he’s determined to realise his genius.