Adel Taarabt is the Premier League's new maverick
He has the aura of Eric Cantona and has been compared to Zinedine Zidane. Volatile yet mercurial, Adel Taarabt is Queen's Park Ranger's trump card this season. Ian Hawkey explains why Premier League fans will relish watching the gifted Moroccan playmaker
West London has always attracted football's mavericks.
Chelsea used to have a reputation both for nurturing them and for signing them, often late in their careers, in the era before great wealth and a Russian benefactor altered the identity of that club.
Fulham in the 1960s were the team built around the masterly passing of Johnny Haynes; a decade later they hired an ageing George Best.
At Queens Park Rangers, a fabled list of enigmatic, sometimes incorrigibly wayward, artists dot the club's history.
Supporters old enough to remember the mid-1970s, when QPR finished runners-up for the English league title, reminisce warmly about Stan Bowles, an unpredictable inside-forward, and about his showy predecessor in the hooped No 10 jersey, Rodney Marsh.
In the same tradition would fit Tony Currie, a blond midfielder never shy of attempting the ambitious pass.
As Rangers celebrate their return to the top-flight of English football after an absence of 15 years, some of that pizzazz is apparent in Adel Taarabt, as well as some potential problems as the gifted winger or playmaker takes on the pressures of the Premier League.
Even by the time Taarabt was 17 years old, he had acquired quite a reputation. As an intern at the central French youth academy, word of his quick, nimble feet and his delight in the unexpected pass, his range of feints and tricks had spread to most professional clubs in le championnat.
Suspicions that he had streak of the diva about him, however, would be confirmed almost as soon as he started breaking into the first-team at Lens. He clashed with two teammates, Sidi Keita and Gregory Vignal, and after an argument with Vignal during a fixture, he found himself ushered towards the exit door.
As far as French football was concerned, his nascent career had already stalled. A change of scene was recommended to the Moroccan-born, Marseille-raised maverick. It was suggested he might try England, a place where at least one Provencal prima donna, Eric Cantona, had thrived after a rough period in France.
Cantona was one of Taarabt's boyhood idols, and when he began playing in earnest in the suburbs of Marseille, he would be nicknamed after another son of that city, Zinedine Zidane.
It would be far-fetched to call last season's Championship footballer of year a talent likely to match Cantona's influence on the Premier League or Zidane's on the global game, but his arrival in the top-flight of English football is cause for excitement well beyond Loftus Road.
He can be beguiling to watch, especially when he takes on opponents with his wide portfolio of well-practised manoeuvres. He has spent many youthful hours copying Zidane's roulette, the trick of passing the sole quickly across the top of the ball to confuse an opponent; he likes the back-heeled pass. He also has more orthodox weapons: a fine change of pace and a ferocious shot.
Taarabt has played in the Premier League before, but they were brief cameos, as a fringe player, still very young, in the squad of Tottenham Hotspur. The French director of football at Spurs at the time, Damien Comolli had recruited him from Lens, assuring him that despite his young age, he had prospects in the first-team.
When Spurs came under a new manager, Juande Ramos, those vanished. "Juande gave me the idea he didn't even know who I was," Taarabt later told the French media.
Initially, he joined QPR on loan. The Championship suited him. "He's a genius, the way he goes past people" one of his several managers at Rangers, Jim Magilton, would coo. "He's the type of player you hardly see in the modern game."
Taarabt has survived several changes of manager at volatile QPR, who signed him permanently from Spurs for £1.5 million (Dh9m). Neil Warnock, who guided the club to the top of England's second-tier last May, often jokes that his teammates are under instruction not to pass to Taarabt when he is in their own half, knowing that, for him, the risk of losing possession is secondary to what he might attempt creatively.
"But he's a breath of fresh air," Warnock adds of Taarabt, "and he wins matches, which is what we will need in the Premier League."
Warnock has approached the challenge of promotion visibly relieved that QPR's senior board members turned down a bid of over €10m (Dh53m) for Taarabt from Paris Saint Germain last month.
The player had been flattered, and tempted by a return to France, but also feels a debt to his manager at Rangers, whom he once described as a mentor who "treats me like a son", a guide who had enabled the player "to enjoy professional football like never before."
Taarabt has not always enjoyed such careful, indulgent handling.
Earlier this summer he fell out with Morocco head coach Eric Gerets after he was left out the starting XI for an African Nations Cup qualifier against Algeria. He stormed off from the training camp. He apologised later, but has not been recalled.
Warnock needs Taarabt to deal with the inevitable setbacks facing Rangers on their return to the summit with a cooler attitude.
More players to watch this season
Grant Holt, Norwich City
Nicknamed The Tank for his bulky aspect, the striker was something of a late developer: Holt will make his Premier League bow at the age of 30. A varied early career included a spell in Singapore as well as stints in non-league and lower division English football. Since joining Norwich two summers ago, he has hit goals at a rate of more than one every two games.
Pajtim Kasami, Fulham
A world under-17 champion with Switzerland, Kasami, now 19, impressed in Serie A when he got a chance with Palermo last season and will give Fulham’s ageing midfield energy and endeavour. Manager Martin Jol likes his versatility, and he combines physical strength with good first touch and a fierce left-footed shot.
A key contributor to Lille’s surprise capture of the French league title last May, the Ivorian international has the right qualities to fir into Arsenal’s passing game. He’s also fast and has an eye for goal from his preferred position just off a centre-forward. A graduate of Abidjan’s ASEC academy, like the Toure brothers, Salomon Kalou and many others.
Oriol Romeu, Chelsea
Yet another admired midfielder from Barcelona’s La Masia academy. Romeu is not quite in the mould of the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas or Thiago Alcantara, but he’s got the composure and confidence in his distribution that characterises them. He’s more like Barcelona and Spain’s Sergio Busquets, strong as well as savvy. And he’s only 19.
Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM