Adel Taarabt has been called many things. Martin Jol, his manager at Tottenham, labelled him “a wizard”. A few years later at QPR, Harry Redknapp described him “three stone overweight.” Both are probably close to being true. But nobody ever dared to call the Moroccan a defensive midfielder, even Taarabt himself: when asked to respond to Redknapp’s criticism, the then 24-year-old simply replied “maybe he expects me to make more tackles. I am not this type of player.”
Except, this season for Benfica, that is exactly the type of player Taarabt has become and at the age of 30, he is playing the best football of his life – an all-action combative menace at the base of midfield: snapping into challenges, shouting and ordering his team-mates this way and that, and yes, occasionally still nutmegging people.
Some old tricks remain, but Taarabt’s transformation is a remarkable one. It has not happened overnight: signed by Benfica in 2015, it took him nearly four years to make a first-team appearance for the Portuguese giants. During the first year of his five-year contract, grainy videos circulated of him turning out for the reserves, punting corner kicks straight into the side netting. An 18-month loan to Genoa followed, during which Taarabt admitted he had lost 11kg of weight. Another season in Benfica’s reserves came and went before he finally managed to break into the first team in 2019.
There is not one single reason why Taarabt has fallen back in love with football, and why football has fallen back in love with him, but his loan spell at Genoa in 2017-18, and his relationship with Ivan Juric, his manager there, is one of the most important. “When I first arrived at Genoa, I was out of shape and there were problems” said Taarabt. “I am coming back now, not quite what I was before, but I’m getting there. With Ivan, you always have to go full pelt. He’s fair, though. If you prove that you understood what went wrong, he’ll press the reset button and start again. I don’t know if we can call each other friends, but he certainly changed my life – and my body.”
The Moroccan’s relationships with his various managers have defined the peaks and troughs of his career. Neil Warnock was the first to fully nurture his extraordinary talent. Taarabt went from Spurs cast-off to QPR captain in a few months at just 21 years old, was made to feel what he is – a star – and spent most of 2010-11 waltzing around the Championship like he owned the place, which he did.
Those at Loftus Road would simply sing “Taarabt’s too good for you”, which he was. At the end of one performance – a 4-0 win over promotion rivals Swansea – Warnock can be seen with his hands on his head in disbelief at Taarabt’s performance, not unlike the manager’s comical centre-circle stare-off with referee Craig Pawson last year. A solo strike against Preston was probably the goal of the season, while one outside-of-the-boot pass to set up the winner against Coventry, was surely the best pass Loftus Road had seen since Stan Bowles’s sublime pass against Leicester in 1977. QPR were promoted as champions in May 2011, with Taarabt finishing with 19 goals and 16 assists from 44 league appearances.
The clips for Benfica these days are perhaps not as extraterrestrial, but arguably more impressive given that Taarabt is now playing in Champions League, not the Championship. Domestically, Benfica are currently top of the table, having won 18 of their 19 games, and face their only conquerors this season, Porto, on Saturday at the Estádio do Dragão. It is a monumental match between the two biggest rivals in Portugal, and even at this stage, probably represents Porto’s last chance to deny Benfica a sixth title in seven seasons.
Taarabt’s contribution will likely be crucial to Benfica’s chances. He scored and was man-of-the-match in their last league game against Belenenses, a narrow 3-2 win, and has formed an excellent understanding alongside Julian Weigl, the £18m January recruit from Borussia Dortmund.
Just as Warnock nurtured at QPR, and Clarence Seedorf supported Taarabt during his successful loan spell at Milan in 2014, the encouragement from Bruno Lage at Benfica has been pivotal to Taarabt re-establishing himself. “We tried to place him as second striker, but we felt that we could take more advantage of him in the double pivot,” the head coach said recently. “He gives us defensive balance and also quality in attack.”
Few have known the ups and downs that Taarabt has experienced: lurching from cult hero to Karl Henry’s back-up at QPR, keeping Robinho out of the side at Milan before weight gain, obscurity and now redemption at Benfica. There will always be the nagging feeling that Taarabt could have achieved more, but with the arrival of Saturday night’s O Clássico, we should just enjoy him for what he is: a street footballer trying to fit in on the big stage.