Adama Traoré made his Barcelona league debut at the age of 17 by coming on as a substitute for Neymar. That was nearly six years ago. Since then he has been best appreciated as a kind of rodeo act: enjoy the thrilling ride, just do not expect a dignified finish. But now Traoré is bucking that trend and showing signs of becoming a player who is as efficient as he is exciting. There is no one else like him in the Premier League.
Wolves had no one like the current him last season, even though they signed Traoré from Middlesbrough for £18m in August 2018. That, you see, was Traoré the Frustrating Winger, as opposed to the player unleashed this season: Traoré the Sharp Wing-Back.
Matt Doherty, Wolves’ trusty right wing-back ever since Nuno Espírito Santo’s men began their rise from the Championship, admitted last season that he was grateful the club had no real alternative to him when they first got promoted, a fact that gave the Irishman time to adapt to the Premier League. Doherty said he did not feel at ease in the top flight until his third match last season, during which he excelled in a 1-0 win at West Ham. Traoré, playing as a winger, happened to score the goal that day but it remains his only one for Wolves. He has never produced regularly when deployed in his most familiar role. Happily for Wolves, Nuno had a plan: to turn Traoré into a wing-back. The early indicators are that was inspired.
Nuno experimented with Traoré in that role a couple of times towards the end of last season but only this term has the player got a decent run at it. Timing has been important: he got his opportunity partly because of injury and illness to Doherty and he was able to seize it having benefited from his first full pre-season under the guidance of Nuno.
Traoré has qualities that every coach would relish harnessing – lightning speed and the build of a rugby league player – but until now there had been doubts about how coachable he was, even though he began his tuition at Barcelona at the age of eight. Too often his brilliant runs ended with wayward shots or crosses. Aston Villa never gave him a league start after buying him from Barcelona for £7m in 2015. When he moved to Middlesbrough, whose then manager, Aitor Karanka, knew him from the Spanish youth system, he was routinely instructed to switch wings at half-time so that he was always on the side of the dugout and thus able to hear instructions. Karanka suggested the player, while capable of wonderful flourishes, was tactically weak and needed constant reminders of where to go.
It was fitting, then, that Traoré demonstrated his improvement this season by tormenting another player accused, famously, of needing to borrow his manager’s brain to perform. Luke Shaw, once considered a slow learner by José Mourinho, found Traoré unstoppable when the Spaniard replaced Doherty at half-time during Wolves’ draw with Manchester United last month. Traoré transformed that game by tearing through United nearly every time he got the ball and then, once he got himself into a dangerous position, showing the smarts to deliver an accurate pass or shot.
He did the same in both legs of the Europa League play-off against Torino, who flew into a panic every time Traoré ran at them. Traoré, by contrast, stayed in control. His improvement was encapsulated in the way he created the first goal in the second leg at Molineux: he began with a searing dash past two opponents down the wing and concluded by splitting another two defenders with a precise cross to the near post, where Raúl Jiménez flicked into the net. The buildup was the work of a savvy player, no longer one who struggled to make the right decision after bewildering opponents. He turned 23 only in August so it would have been unfair to give up hope of him fulfilling his potential. Nuno has found a way to help him that eluded others.
After that home leg against Torino, Nuno described how important Traoré’s contribution was to his whole team. “The way he took the team up, the way he created, the way he unbalanced the opponents, he can do all this and other things,” said the Wolves manager. “But he has to improve a lot. This time he was stable in defense, covering his center-back, winning balls in the air. We’re building a player.”
In Wolves’ next outing, the 3-2 defeat at Everton, Traoré showed that he is, understandably, not yet complete. Although he often pushed Lucas Digne back, he also allowed the Frenchman to give him the slip too often at the other end, and he lost track of Alex Iwobi for Everton’s second goal. Doherty is better defensively. But with experience and Nuno, Traoré is likely to develop his defensive instincts while retaining his awesome attacking menace.
For now, Wolves, unlike last season, have two different and attractive options at right wing-back. It will be interesting to see which one Nuno starts with if Doherty is fit when Chelsea go to Molineux on Saturday. Mason Mount, another emerging marvel, may operate off the left for the visitors. Doherty, no slouch going forward, is a sure thing at the back and, therefore, the safer choice. Traoré is a work in progress in terms of his defending but, when it comes to his attacking, an extraordinary talent is starting to bloom.
The Guardian Sport