Yannick Bolasie: Crystal Palace’s enigmatic winger capable of leading the charge into Europe

Ahead of Crystal Palace's Premier League match against Sunderland, Richard Jolly profiles winger Yannick Bolasie, who scored an 11-minute hat-trick the last time these two sides met.

Yannick Bolasie will be aiming to replicate his last performance against Sunderland when he struck an 11-minute hat-trick. Paul Ellis / AFP
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Richard Jolly

Being Sunderland seems to involve infinite indignities. The last 15 months alone have successive seasons when they did not win a league game in August or September, an 8-0 defeat and finding themselves 4-0 down within an hour at home twice inside four weeks.

A reunion with Yannick Bolasie on Monday will reacquaint them with one tormentor. The winger scored an 11-minute hat-trick in Crystal Palace’s 4-1 win in April.

That Bolasie had not scored a club goal for almost seven months said much about Sunderland. It also revealed something about the Palace crowd-pleaser: potentially devastating, often offering hints of brilliance, forever unpredictable but a sporadic scorer.

He is perhaps the Premier League’s most idiosyncratic talent, a loose-limbed blend of pace and skill, with a capacity to beat defenders in such unconventional ways that it prompts suggestions that if he does not know what he is doing, then how can they?

He is a paradox and an enigma, a winger in terms of his skill-set but a terrific No 10 at the Stadium of Light seven months ago and a superb stand-in striker at Anfield two weeks ago.

He had been Liverpool’s nemesis in May as well. “Maybe that mental message he got last season brought that back and he was terrific,” said manager Alan Pardew afterwards, while stating: “He has been quiet for us this season.”

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That is partly the consequence of personal tragedy — his father died in August — but it also indicates how expectations have been raised.

A supposedly quiet Bolasie nonetheless figured at the forefront of many others’ explanations for Palace’s terrific start to the season.

They are a team defined by their interchangeable, electric band of wingers. They fielded all four at Anfield, when Bolasie and Bakary Sako started in the middle.

A team still looking for its first league goal from a specialist centre-forward this season found a different way to win.

Were Bolasie to become a consistent scorer then, as Pardew admitted when the 26-year-old signed a new deal in September, he might not be a Palace player for much longer.

“I’ve said all along that he needs to deliver in the final moment in matches,” he manager said. “Once he starts doing that he won’t be here — whatever the length of time we have on that contract.”

Yet the cost of doing making such a move was outlined in April. “I’ll sell Yannick, if someone wants to give me £40 million (Dh223.1m) to £60 million,” Pardew said then.

A mooted target for Tottenham Hotspur remained at Selhurst Park. Any such deal would represent the most profitable in Palace’s history.

Bolasie cost them just £250,000 when he joined from Bristol City in 2012. They, in turn, had paid Plymouth Argyle a mere £20,000 for his services a year earlier.

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It took time for his talents to be recognised; perhaps that is because, in eschewing predictability, he is not always particularly productive. He epitomises their counter-attacking threat on the road but went two-and-a-half years without scoring a home league goal.

His 63 Premier League appearances have only yielded 10 assists. Yohan Cabaye, not Bolasie, is Palace’s set-piece specialist.

Ian Holloway, Tony Pulis and Pardew have overseen Bolasie’s improvement. Others struggled to accommodate him. Like his teammate Jason Puncheon, another of Palace’s phalanx of enterprising wingers, he has spent spells at both Barnet and Plymouth. City granted Bolasie just seven league starts.

Even when he helped Palace to promotion from the Championship in 2013, he was overshadowed by teammate Wilfried Zaha. It was the English winger who Manchester United signed.

His reward that year instead was a first international cap. Born in Lyon and also qualified to play for England, he opted to represent DR Congo, the country of his ancestors.

He helped them finish third in last year’s African Cup of Nations. Now there is the possibility his mazy dribbling could take Palace into Europe.

But, as a glimpse at Bolasie’s solo runs shows, the path they will take seems both winding and exhilarating.

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