For years, Adama Traore was thought of as a permanent enigma, incapable of delivering anything more than frustrations and what-ifs. But over the last few months, the Wolves winger has started to prove us all wrong.
Traore seemed destined for the same pile as so many players to break through at elite clubs, failing to make the most of unquestionable talent and finding themselves on those yearly ‘whatever happened to…’ lists.
It can be difficult to reassess and set different targets for yourself, but Traore hasn’t just done that – he’s hit those targets, without really compromising on what sets him apart from his peers.
To describe the former Barcelona prospect as a strong dribbler doesn’t even tell half the story. It’s like saying Andy Roddick was a pretty good server or Shane Warne could turn a ball.
It has often felt like a bizarre Speed sequel, where instead of being unable to slow below 50 miles per hour he’s unable to survive if he doesn’t complete at least three successful take-ons.
In the 2017-18 season, Traore’s last before joining Wolves, he averaged more than seven dribbles per game for Middlesbrough in the Championship. To put that into context, it’s twice as many as any other player in the division.
After finding himself in and out of Nuno’s team last season – it’s probably tougher to build up a head of steam when you’re having to find your way in a game from the bench – he’s back to his old ways. An average of 5.8 dribbles per game, while lower than Traore’s Championship average, remains absurd: only one other player has more than four, and only three more have even half of the Wolves man’s tally.
It’s not just off the charts, it’s redefining the entire concept of the chart as a measuring tool.
Reminder that in 2017-18 Adama Traore completed 30 more dribbles than the entire Burnley squad
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) August 19, 2019
Traore has had such success due to the nature of his dribbling rather than by brute-forcing it; it’s a blend of ridiculous speed and close-control which shouldn’t be possible – if you’re moving at that pace, you shouldn’t have time to make decisions at the same time.
For a while, this proved correct, with a final delivery often feeling like the response of a man who knows he has to release the ball after a certain number of seconds but hasn’t gone beyond that.
Even then, though, there was the occasional moment when everything clicked, with his assist for Carles Gil at Aston Villa a prime example. The pieces didn’t all fall into place, but when they did… oh boy.
"Oh what a goal! What a finish! Beautifully made by Traore and Carlos Gil with a finish to savour!"
— AVFC Goals (@avfcgoals) March 5, 2018
The easy move would be to bring the runs under control to give himself more time to calculate the next move – after all, this seems much simpler than training your mind up to work at such an unprecedented level. Adama Traore rarely goes for the simple option, though.
What’s notable now is not just how the bursts of pace are being followed by more in the way of end-product, but how he’s proving just as useful in more enclosed spaces.
Yes, you’re likely to shit your pants if you find yourself in a one-on-one race, but the presence of back-up isn’t enough to make you feel any safer.
In Wolves’ recent defeat to Watford, Traore completed 16 dribbles. Sixteen. According to WhoScored, that’s the same number Sergio Aguero has completed all season, and more than the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Theo Walcott have managed since the start of the campaign.
It’s one dribble every six minutes – better than that, in fact – and there were occasions where the gap between one dribble ending and the next one beginning was a matter of seconds.
In a lot of the clips you’ll watch, Traore is surrounded by multiple opponents, and for good reason. We’ve long passed the point where leaving him one-on-one with a defender is anything other than suicidal.
However, even on those occasions where there are bodies in the way, you’re far from safe.
We should never underestimate the power of a footballer’s fear of being embarrassed. It’s the source of many fouls which otherwise seem stupid, with a red card still sometimes preferable to a humiliation that will live far longer in the memory, but it’s also the origin of some of Traore’s other standout moments.
If you refuse to commit, you can’t end up on your backside as he speeds into the distance. But this bluff only works if he’s blind to the extra option it gives him.
Against Tottenham, as defender after defender protected themselves, they presented Traore with a dare. Go for the impossible run if you want, or turn down the temptation and go for goal instead. The last thing they anticipated was him actually doing the latter.
There used to be a time when you almost relished playing against someone like Adama Traore. You had a reasonable idea of what you’d be up against, and there would likely be space for the occasional breather or free hit. So it showed at Villa and in that first Boro season, with no goals and just two assists.
Now, though, that couldn’t be further from the truth. You can’t switch off in the face of the non-stop activity as there’s a genuine fear of what will come at the end of it all. You can foul him – and Traore is still in the top 10 most fouled players in the league – but that will only get you so far.
If the increased productivity had come at the expense of the otherworldly dribbling, that would be one thing, but he’s managed to keep up or even improve that element at the same time. Try training your mind to convince itself you’re not still dealing with the old Adama.
It’s only been half a season, of course, and too early to be sure he won’t just revert to type in terms of end-product. If he doesn’t, though, we’re all in a lot of trouble.
By Tom Victor