“Nutmegs… I prefer.”
Words can make a man. In the case of Adel Taarabt the three words above and the aphorism they form embedded him, and his unique brand of football even deeper into the folklore of Queens Park Rangers. Maybe its the way he says them, a little smile as he talks, the pause and then “prefer” – words to accompany his deeds. These words aren’t idle, they aren’t empty: Adel means it when he says he prefers nutmegs. From Joe Allen to Joe Cole, ‘Fat’ Frank Lampard to occasional “Splash” contestant Ashley Young, there aren’t many players left in the top two divisions of English league football who haven’t endured this Moroccan’s particular brand of footballing humiliation. His skills have become something ritualistic, a sacrifice Adel makes to appease the crowd, and to satiate his own artistic lust.
Life always throws up mavericks, originals in the truest sense of the word. These people tend to end up in one of two places; under the Westway, living in a cardboard box surviving off chewing gum spat out of the windows of passing cars or they become outrageous success’. Taarabt is heading for the latter. Why is he an original? For a start he doesn’t look like a footballer, in the same way that Andres Iniesta looks like a concierge or the bloke who sorts letters in the post office, and Michu looks as if he should be a roadie for Nickelback, Taarabt simply doesn’t have the svelte, streamlined body of today’s standard professional footballer. He is stocky, squat and boxy, his arms are unhinged and move as if they constantly caught in a strong breeze. There is a nonchalance to Taarabt, a swagger not seen at QPR since the days of Stan Bowles.
“We used to play in the French national team and he was just nutmegging the same guy for maybe four or five times, the manager used to tell him, ‘If you don’t give the ball, you come off.’ And he didn’t care. He was bringing us penalties, scoring goals.” – Armand Traoré
“I arrived to find that, at three o’clock in the afternoon, it was already night. I played for the Tottenham reserves against Chelsea and I could not understand how the English played. Somebody put me on the floor but there were no free-kicks, nothing. The referee just played on. When you play in France it’s quiet, the players do not talk. In England I hear players saying, ‘F**k off. Man on. Come on’. Players in my team, they are shouting at me. I think they’re insulting me.” – Adel Taarabt
Becoming a success wasn’t easy; Taarabt’s natural game as a teenager, his desire to play unencumbered by little things like positioning and tactical discipline, his bad attitude and his inability to speak the language made him the latest in a long line of enfant terrible’s to arrive in England, at Tottenham in this case, in January 2007. After two weeks in England he wanted to leave and by his last season at Spurs Juande Ramos refused to even give him a shirt number (the same fate befell Kevin Prince-Boateng who is now a superstar at AC Milan).Taarabt’s time at Tottenham, with its fall outs and frustrations, damaged his reputation amongst the mainstream media and football fans in general in a way in which it has yet to recover. Having arrived at Tottenham in 2007 hailed as the next Zidane, Taarabt wound up at Queens Park Rangers, a player with a reputation for being a ‘fruitcake’ found himself at a club run by fruitcakes.
It worked though. The things Taarabt did in the Championship for QPR between 2008 and 2011 won’t be repeated soon by any player in the division. Take the goal against Preston above. Taking the ball down from a goal kick inside his own half, Taarabt turns, brushing aside two challenges, rinses a third Preston player with a nutmeg, pushes the ball a few yards further and then nonchalantly swerves the ball into the top corner from 25 yards outside the goal. C’est magnifique. Watch it again. Few players at any level score goals as good as that. Few players are capable of that at any level.
He promised so much in his early loan spells at QPR. Neil Warnock took Adel under his wing once he became manager in 2009. For both it was a revelatory experience:
“Warnock’s wife [Sharon] has looked after me and his kids have been like family to me. I cannot describe our relationship. Sometimes I think God has brought this guy to me, I am very difficult guy to control but Neil does it.It is special between me and him, he changed my life. He tells me to just go out onto the pitch and enjoy it. After all that he has given me I try and repay him.
“When a manager tells you, ‘I want to play the team around you,’ then you think, ‘This manager loves me’. At half-time against Preston [in November], I wasn’t playing so well. Neil knows I don’t like it when the other players shout at me. So he took me to the showers and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And in the second half I scored two goals.” – Adel Taarabt on his relationship with Neil Warnock.
Thanks to Warnock’s shrewd management, 2010/11 was the most entertaining season of Taarabt’s career to date. It encompassed a sensational series of displays – his movement, his strength, ability to keep the ball in seemingly impossible spaces, his link-up play, his willingness to shoot (rewarded with a plethora of outrageous goals such as the one against Swansea above) all made him a worthy player of the year that season. With Wilfred Zaha moving to Manchester United for a fee that could rise to £15 million pounds, it is worth bearing in mind that the former has done nothing in the Championship consistently comparable to Taarabt – yes Zaha is a good dribbler, yes he is less ‘risky’ but he doesn’t have a talent anywhere near as off-the-wall, as enigmatic as Taarabt’s.
What was astonishing about that season was the ease with which Taarabt did extraordinary things. Here was a man who played like a boy; as if this was his own game, as if normal considerations didn’t apply. It was a destructive season – Taarabt destroyed teams and reputations, in a way that was as thrilling as it was unconventional. Having had the pleasure of witnessing it I would say it’s the finest individual season any player has had in the second division of English football in the last decade.
“Mark Hughes had a big impact on him, showed him how much of a good player he is and on the other hand he has to work hard. I think it was a really good step for Adel to have that manager.” – Armand Traoré
“He can be a top, top player. He’s like Di Canio, doing things nobody else can do. He nutmegs people, he goes past two or three and they’re hanging on to him, but they can’t get the ball off him.” – Harry Redknapp
If Mark Hughes has any legacy at QPR other than potential ruination in the years to come, it is his impact on Taarabt. Hughes turned him into a professional footballer again after a poor start to the 2011/12 season when injury, wasteful immaturity and the arrival of Joey Barton at the club derailed his progress. Taarabt in 2013 is a different proposition to the player of years past. He is more mature, more of a leader and far harder working than ever before. In a QPR team riddled with rank inadequacies this season he has stood out like a particularly obese man in a crowd full of flesh-eating cadavers.
“There were, inevitably, times when he overcomplicated things and lost the ball in unnecessary situations, but his skill and imagination when playing the false nine role was marvellous. Taarabt saw little of the ball in dangerous positions, yet managed to manufacture genuine goalscoring opportunities” – Michael Cox on Taarabt’s performance against Tottenham
Harry Redknapp quickly realised that Taarabt is the only player at QPR good enough to drag them out of the mire they are in, even playing him as a lone striker in impressive performances against Chelsea and Tottenham. Playing as a ‘false nine’ Taarabt dispelled the stereotypes that have followed him around since his teenage years. He has come of age. People who sit in their armchairs tweeting about Taarabt being “lazy” and “arrogant”, are lamentably lazy and arrogant themselves.
Personally I feel great affection for Adel Taarabt. He is symbolic of certain qualities – a triumph of imagination and talent over the mechanical, statistical side of modern football. In England we don’t appreciate this. Especially if the player is a foreigner. I get the impression that metaphorically, most people would rather watch James Milner slowly peel an orange instead of seeing Taarabt juggle five of them in the room next door. They want order, not chaos. Yet if QPR are to stay up this season it will be by playing to Taarabt’s strengths not ostracising him for his occasional bouts of carelessness. After two years of transfer business at QPR that has seen millions of pounds wasted, it remains a fact that it will be by embracing Taarabt’s chaotic talent that the club remains in the Premiership.