There is a niche bracket of footballers who possess the ability to excite and frustrate fans in equal measure. Middlesbrough winger and West Ham transfer target Adama Traore is one such footballer, belonging in said bracket.
The former Barcelona youngster is a closetful of contradictions. On the one hand, he’s blessed with all the natural ability you’d expect of a La Masia product; on the other, he’s perennially struggled to turn it into success at senior level. Likewise, whilst 1537 minutes of Premier League action last term produced no goals and just one assist, only two players throughout the entire division completed more dribbles – Eden Hazard and Wilfried Zaha – than the 21-year-old, from nearly twice as much game-time.
Clearly, there is an immense talent within Traore. But equally clearly, his last two clubs, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, and his last four managers, Tim Sherwood, Remi Garde, Aitor Karanka and Steve Agnew, have all failed to get it out of him.
He wouldn’t be the first or the last footballer to struggle to show his true worth in his younger years, but for a former Barcelona prospect with over 100 senior club appearances under his belt, not to mention 16 outings for Spain at youth level, Traore probably should be a little further along the learning curve right now.
Unquestionably, the Spaniard’s greatest flaw is his lack of output, which was practically non-existent for Middlesbrough last season. In stark contrast to averaging the most dribbles per match of any player in the Premier League, he produced less than one effort at goal every two appearances and averaged just over one key pass every ninety minutes. Even his passing accuracy finished up at a miserly 70%, the third-worst of any outfield Boro player to make more than ten Premier League starts.
But concerns regarding Traore stem deeper than that. Footballing intelligence is a bigger underlying factor behind his modest output than technique, a failure to make the right decisions in the right scenarios, and he’s still tactically naive, which is why Villa and Boro were both reluctant to trust him in relegation battles.
Likewise, Traore’s understanding of team ethic remains open to some debate; he was one of the stars of the show in Barcelona’s B-string and sometimes seems still caught in that mindset. Defensively too, his contribution can be lazily limited – just 26 tackles and six interceptions last season.
Yet, many young footballers have weaknesses of this variety, especially young wide-men incredibly confident in their own abilities. The real question for a suitor like West Ham is whether Traore’s qualities can outweigh his flaws to the extent that he becomes advantageous to the team. Although there’s still some work to be done, it’s already clear Traore is a risk worth taking.
After all, close control and dribbling is half the battle in football and for what Traore lacks in output, he gains in being able to run the ball into the right areas, often dazzling his way past two or three defenders to take them out of the game in the process. If the Spaniard can improve the other aspects of his game to a decent-to-average level, he’ll be a real force in attack, one who could go onto great things.
But even if he doesn’t, dribbling when used correctly can be an invaluable asset, moving the team twenty or thirty yards up the pitch by drawing fouls or winning throw ins, providing an outlet on the counter or simply drawing defenders to make room for other players.
That’s the service Traore’s provided for Boro and Villa over the last few seasons and although neither will be remembered as particularly positive spells in his career, more blame should be placed on two clubs who mustered up just 54 Premier League goals between them than a youngster still learning his trade. As much as Traore’s lack of output is an individual problem, it can also argued both of his Premier League employers didn’t use him efficiently.
Regardless, one assumes Traore’s contributions would be more effective in a more competent team surrounded by better players. Perhaps more importantly and more specificially, West Ham need an attacker capable of doing what the youngster provides.
Excepting midseason departure Dimitri Payet, no Hammers player averaged more than 1.6 successful dribbles per match last season and with the Frenchman’s returns taken away, Slaven Bilic’s side ranked 13th throughout the Premier League for completed dribbles and 9th for fouls won. Playing Traore week in, week out would boost those returns and likely provide the Hammers with more opportunities to score from set pieces – something they managed the fourth-most times of any Premier League side last season.
With his seeming suitability to the Hammers in mind, not to mention the potential for Traore to one day realise the enormous potential heralded of him in his Barcelona days, the £8million fee being mooted – albeit £1.2million higher than the winger’s market value according to TransferMarkt – seems like a steal; a modest fee that would not only improve Bilic’s options in attack next season but could lead to an enormous mark-up in a few years’ time.
There may be bigger, more glamorous and more exciting transfers in the Premier League this summer, but Traore is already shaping up to be the league’s shrewdest signing.