Adama Traoré dribbles more than almost anybody else in the world. But what is he actually good for?
“When you watch the game, you don’t see Busquets,” Vicente del Bosque once mused. “But when you watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”
It’s a quote which heralds the importance of the unseen man on the football field. Connecting the various strings of a team into one cohesive instrument, considered poise over sparkling style.
Raised and reared in La Masia, that great idyllic footballing paradise, Sergio Busquets will be venerated as one of the saints of Barcelona’s most recent Golden Age.
But where there are worshippers there are heathens, for every saint a fallen angel. There is one lurking in the Premier League right now, stolen away and granted frightening new abilities by the high priest of football’s dark arts.
Tempted first by that malevolent force Sherwood of Villa, Adama Traoré was thrown from football’s Garden of Eden and eventually found himself in the wilderness – the Sky Bet Championship, as the ancient runes called it. Having been pulled from the light he found himself serving at the whim of football’s Lucifer, His horns obscured by a navy blue baseball cap. Trained and groomed by Tony Pulis, the youngster found within himself depths he never knew were there, a power his scorners said he couldn’t harness.
The power of end product.
The antithesis of Busquets, if you spent 90 minutes with your eyes locked onto Traoré, you wouldn’t witness the whole match unfolding around him, a one-man heat map/pass-chart hybrid from which you could divine every last detail of the game. You’d just see the best bits.
He is what you would think a footballer looked like if your only source material was three-minute dubstep-backed skills compilations on YouTube. Where Busquets receives a pass, turns, and moves it on to a teammate, Traoré spins and careers away seemingly out of control, whirling around the pitch like a cat caught in a plastic bag – you might question his thought process, but good luck getting close enough to stop him. He brings to a match a distilled sense of chaos which few, if any, current players can match.
That Traoré dribbles a ball like nobody else on the planet is hardly news. You don’t have to stray too far into Analytics Twitter to find a support group for exasperated statisticians, their charts and scales thrown way off by anomalous Adama’s hundreds of completed dribbles each season. His total of 243 for Middlesbrough in 2017-18 was only one shy of the figure posted by Eden Hazard and Mohamed Salah combined in the same campaign, and no Championship player got within 100.
But forget the numbers. Numbers aren’t really what he’s about. In a world in which people moan at rocket-footed midfielders for having a dig from 30 yards due to a sub-optimal pre-shot xG rating, Traoré is footballing emotion incarnate. You’re thrilled when he dribbles, furious when he skews a pass of out of play, exasperated when he doesn’t run in behind and in love when he finds the net.
With one Barcelona appearance, one Premier League goal and two relegations to his name at 23, the overriding arc of his story so far is one of unfulfilled potential. Of bringing you to the edge of your seat then slumping back down when the shot whistles wide, the cross flies over or that fourth defender just manages to stick a foot in.
The elevated expectations that come with a La Masia education have hardly helped. When he was signed for Aston Villa by Tim Sherwood, he was described as “a bit of Messi and a bit of Ronaldo”. The only way was down.
He has only managed to harness his own talent consistently for one half- season spell – when Traoré met Pulis. When Middlesbrough appointed the Welshman on Boxing Day 2017, Teesside was quickly losing its spirit during a chastening season. Pre-season promises of “smashing the league” under a progressive, attack-minded young coach in Garry Monk had fallen by the wayside and the arrival of the arch-pragmatist had fans strapping themselves in for a dour few months.
The marauding full-back Cyrus Christie and silky attacker Martin Braithwaite were quickly shown the door, with converted centre-back Ryan Shotton and world- renowned Big Man Up Top Rudy Gestede profiting from their departures. With scouts sent down the A19 from Newcastle to watch him, it seemed as if Traoré’s time at Middlesbrough was drawing to an anticlimactic end. Even under his Spanish mentor Aitor Karanka and the uber- attacking Monk, Traoré’s presence in the Middlesbrough team had been transitory.
Rarely trusted to start, Karanka insisted on swapping him from right to left at half-time so he could tactically hold his hand through games. Under Monk, things clicked on an away trip to Bolton. Traoré was sublime, winning the game almost single-handedly with two stunning assists. Three days later, against former side Aston Villa, he was sent off after four minutes and started only one of the 12 games that followed.
This tinderbox of a player surely had no place under the new regime. You lit his fuse and hoped he burned his way through the opposition before he blew up in your face. That wasn’t the Tony Pulis way. But Newcastle’s offers were rebuffed. Pulis and Traoré were chalk and cheese but the old dog saw something in the boy bristling with new tricks. He started three of Pulis’s first four games in charge and, in the fourth, something remarkable happened. One and a half seasons and 42 appearances into his Middlesbrough career, Adama Traoré scored a goal.
It came after a neat bit of play with Gestede, the Benin forward flicking a header in behind for Traoré to chase and thump into the net. It was a nice goal rather than a stunning one, but the transformation it heralded in its scorer was huge.
Suddenly, he had the end product. The goals and assists started to flow. He sprinted to embrace Pulis after a double against Reading, scored back-to-back stunners against Barnsley and Brentford, and wrought such destruction upon Leeds that Patrick Bamford was able to step into the wreckage and register his first professional hat-trick.
Pulis and Traoré worked as a duo because Pulis did what no other manager had or, at time of writing, has to date. He truly, honestly believed in him. In the end it was simple. The anchoring presence of Shotton behind Traoré gave him license to play on instinct rather than getting stuck in his own head; unsure when and where to pass it, wondering why Grant Leadbitter was shouting at him this time and questioning why he would run at the defence when nobody had passed him the ball yet.
But to say he was simply given free licence to do as he pleased would do him a disservice. A media-shy individual, Traoré’s rare appearances on camera give the impression of an earnest young man who knows his flaws and works on them, whatever the naysayers may tweet about him. He learned to track back, to use his immense physicality to hustle and bully opponents off the ball, to dovetail with teammates rather than searing past them. In six months under Pulis, he became the player Barça had been trying to turn him into for 11 years.
The Olympic gold medal winner Darren Campbell was drafted in to help him with his speed – ‘slow down’ was the message – and his affable, generous exchanges with fans established him as a real favourite on the Riverside terraces. He had arrived as an unknown and spent a year and a half being told he was a sprinter without a brain, but by the time he left Middlesbrough there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. “Adama was my best buddy so to lose him is really difficult,” Pulis said. “He was my boy, and I loved him to death.”
Traoré left plenty behind, both material and memorable. 50 signed shirts were gifted to season-ticket holders, the Gazette calling him “the most exhilarating Boro player since Juninho”. You don’t have to spend much time on Teesside to know how much of a compliment that is.
For a short spell in early 2018, perhaps the most exciting footballer on the planet played for Pulis’s Middlesbrough. It is a statement worth repeating, lest it fail to sink in the first time around. When he left for Wolves, of course, that great contradiction at the centre of his story was gone. At Molineux he found the brave, unconventional, continental manager you’d always have expected him to end up with.
And yet, it does add a little extra romantic gloss to that nonsensical half a season that it still hasn’t quite clicked in Wolverhampton. Nuno Espírito Santo has moved Traoré around the pitch, toying with the idea of playing him up front and juggling him with the rest of his cavalcade of inventive Iberians.
A first Premier League goal in 40 appearances, a 93rd-minute winner against West Ham early in the season, didn’t open the floodgates as his first did for Boro. His first league assist didn’t come until February, a skewed cross in the 95th minute against Newcastle bundled controversially home by Willy Boly.
Traoré coming good would be a wonderful thing for the Premier League. You would like to think he is simply too good at the things he is good at for him not to make the most of them eventually, with the rest of his game continuing to take baby steps forward. Over the course of three years at Villa and Boro, he played under nine managers, including caretakers, so perhaps a spell of stability under Nuno will do him good.
His whole career, Traoré has been defined by his contradictions. Spending his formative years on the same training grounds as Xavi and Iniesta but never grasping the value of the simple pass.
Arriving on English shores as both the new Messi and the new Ronaldo, impish dribbler and physical powerhouse. Learning to take responsibility under a coach who gave him the freedom to play with his instincts.
But if Barcelona is Heaven and Pulis’s Boro is Hell, what does that make Wolves? Some sort of upwardly-mobile purgatory? The sort of club purgatory could be with a charismatic manager and an injection of Chinese billions?
Or maybe they’re just an exciting little club on Earth, where Traoré can finally shed this increasingly strained metaphor and the extremes that have followed his career.
Where he can stop being a sprinter, a trickster, a cursed hybrid of the two finest footballers of the 21st century – and he can just be a footballer. That might be fun.