Adel Taarabt: From frustrating, fabulous trickster to tireless midfielder central to Benfica's title hopes

Talent has never been in doubt but after years of question marks surrounding his work rate, that is no longer an issue in Portugal

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Primeira Liga - Benfica v S.C. Braga - Estadio da Luz, Lisbon, Portugal - February 15, 2020   Benfica's Adel Taarabt in action with S.C. Braga's Ricardo Horta   REUTERS/Rafael Marchante/File Photo
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It was the summer of 2018. Adel Taarabt had spent some of it watching the World Cup on television, as his ex-international teammates with Morocco distinguished themselves in a tough group, and as France, whom he played for at youth level, went on to lift the trophy. Taarabt felt restless, left out.

By August, things were looking up. Taarabt, then 29, was on the verge of the move he hoped would realign his confoundingly haphazard career. Nantes, of France’s Ligue 1, seemed keen to sign him. He shared a promising conversation with the club’s president, Waldemar Kita, who paused at one point to ask the player: “How come a footballer with so much talent has changed clubs so often?”

Taarabt replied that, for a kid who had started his senior career so young, a total of six clubs did not seem too many. He had miscounted. The Taarabt saga covers many more than six moves, in a journey that has zigzagged as much one of his mazy slaloms down the wing.

It goes from Fes, Morocco, where he was born, to France, where, at Lens he was dubbed ‘The New Zidane’ by the age of 16. Then to Tottenham Hotspur at 17, to cult status at Queen’s Park Rangers at 20. Then Fulham, AC Milan, Queens Park Rangers again, Genoa and Benfica.

And then there’s clubs Taarabt was supposed to have joined: Barcelona or Real Madrid; a very real approach from a newly enriched Paris Saint-Germain; Arsenal; clubs in the Gulf. Those were the deals that never happened, the dream moves for a uniquely gifted entertainer who, by the time he was negotiating with Nantes, had a reputation as a man out of time, unable to adapt, a fabulous trickster with a brilliant highlights reel, but never with enough sweat left on the various jerseys he had worn.

The Nantes move never happened either, and at the close of the summer transfer window in 2018, Taarabt resumed what must technically be described as his ‘career’ with Portugal’s most fabled club. He had signed for Benfica in 2015, from QPR. He only played his first senior fixture for them almost four years later.

In between times there was a loan to Genoa - who had taken Taarabt on, having remembered how he briefly lit up a truly maverick Milan forward line also featuring Mario Balotelli and Robinho - but also very long periods on the margins. For much of last season, Taarabt was turning out with the kids and the left-behinds for Benfica B.

Yet the player who re-emerged over the last 12 months, and will from Thursday night be central to Benfica’s tussle with Porto for the Portuguese title, is a player transformed. Taarabt, the king of the nifty nutmeg, the Zidane-style pirouette, and the spectacular goal from long range, has redefined himself as a box-to-box footballer, from a position at the base of midfield, enforcer as much as a creator.


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epa08128690 SL Benfica's Cervi (2L) celebrates after scoring a goal against Rio Ave during the Portuguese Cup match at Luz stadium, in Lisbon, Portugal, 14 January 2020.  EPA/MARIO CRUZ
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The metamorphosis startles those he frustrated in his younger years. Juande Ramos, who coached Spurs while the club were congratulating themselves on having captured the teenaged Taarabt in 2007, described to O Jogo newspaper "the incredible change in terms of his defensive work" Ramos had seen in Taarabt's performances for Benfica, up until the suspension of football because of the coronavirus crisis in March.

“He has shifted his mentality,” said Ramos. “When he was with us, he only ever thought of keeping the ball, nutmegging opponents, and going for goal. The collective, team responsibilities were put aside. Now, you can do that if you are a superstar who decides games regularly. It wasn’t the case with him when he was at Spurs.”

It was the case for a time at QPR, albeit at Championship, second-tier level. A decade ago, Taarabt was the outstanding entertainer in that division. His solo goal against Preston North End in 2009-10 still draws oohs and aahs when it is broadcast. But he would exasperate even those managers who are tolerant of maverick talents. Harry Redknapp, while at QPR, tired of Taarabt’s wilful individualism.

The player who now patrols central midfield for Benfica, tackles vigorously, looks for the early pass when it is available, can still stimulate the old instincts, and let his quick feet and easy balance launch a dribbling run. But he chooses his moments.

He credits Bruno Lage, Benfica’s manager, for encouraging him to master the central midfield role, and for seeing his potential for it. Taarabt, who turned 31 last month, is back playing for Morocco, too, in a deeper position, after an absence from international football of almost five years.

“He lost a lot of time for a player of his talent,” Ramos said. “But he should be proud of how he has changed his game, and matured. It’s a hard thing to do at any age.”