A new decade, an elevated Adama Traore. Against Watford on January 1st, the 23-year-old Wolves winger broke an Opta record by completing 15 dribbles, the most ever in a single match since the company began tracking the stat. It was the fourth time Traore completed more than 10 dribbles during a game this season. Less than a week earlier, Traore had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win over Manchester City. The goal was opportunistic, but the assist showed off his growth in picking out a final pass. Traore single-handedly won a match against the reigning league champions, though the puzzle of Traore is in the tension between this game-changing quality versus his consistency and development.
Yet the big managers are aware of what Traore brings right now. Jurgen Klopp said that Traore was more difficult to defend than Jamie Vardy because of his speed. Before his performance against Manchester City, Pep Guardiola noted that Traore was impossible to stop, comparing his pace to a motorcycle.
Traore passes the analytics and eye test, in addition to the managerial-respect test. He leads the Premier League with 110 completed dribbles this season, three more than Wilfried Zaha, but in less than 250 minutes of play (to show their dominance, third-place Emiliano Buendia has 68 dribbles). He leads Europe with 5.6 dribbles per match, ahead of both Lionel Messi and Neymar. 24 different players have been booked trying to tackle him. He’s inspired a highlight compilation based on beating the world’s best players. He’s been linked with both Manchester City and Liverpool.
Yet until this season - and maybe up until the winter period for many crawlers of YouTube compilations - there was a debate to how effective Traore actually was in a match. He still only has 10 goals in over 110 matches. The viral nature of his dribbling has been used against him, with an entire generation of social media analysts trained to balance individual flair with efficiency. There’s also an otherworldly nature to dribblers, as if learning the tactical side of the game would take away from their magic. Yet Traore is on 4 goals and 4 assists midway through the season. He said he learned to slow down and beat defenders going 70% instead of going all-out and losing control of the ball.
“If the opposition puts two or three players on me, it means that some of our other players are free,” Traore explained simply.
Traore’s ability is also of a particular moment, with top European clubs placing a premium in the transfer market on creative wingers able to change a match with their individual play. The emphasis on the Champions League refocused attention on this skillset. Bayern Munich are linked with Leroy Sane and Wilfried Zaha. Barcelona brought in Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele, in addition to promoting Ansu Fati. Real Madrid found that sort of winger in Brazil with Vinicius and Rodrygo. Traore could have been overlooked in an analytically-driven market that prizes efficiency, but his outlier ability to make something happen out of nothing makes him even more valuable today.
With the uncontrollable nature of the Champions League knock-out rounds, what is a game-changer worth in the transfer market? We have yet to quantify the value of a completed dribble, even if we understand its importance. Dribbling stats, in isolation, tell you very little about a player’s impact on a game, though the odds of scoring increasethe closer an attacker completes a dribble towards goal. There is a simplicity and directness to a successful dribble. It is an intuitive action, with decisions made in instantaneous, reactive moments where the player, ball, and movement become one. A successful dribble is felt as much as it is seen.
Groomed at La Masia, Traore made one senior side appearance for Barcelona before taking an unconventional path to Aston Villa in 2015. Handed his debut by Gerardo Martino, Traore blamed Luis Enrique for a lack of opportunity in Spain. But it was the era of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, an impossible trio to break into. Even if Traore displays a creativity that recent graduates have lacked.
Not wanting to add any pressure, then-Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood described Traore as “a little bit of Messi and a little bit of Ronaldo” upon his signing. Traore looked to be freed by the space and speed of the Premier League. As Sherwood’s comments show, there’s always been a fascination with Traore’s potential. He moved to Middlesbrough the season after to continue his Premier League education, learning to develop his athleticism and pace. He finished with 5 goals and 10 assists in his final season with the club before moving to Wolves.
“Adama’s game can’t be a highlight of 40 seconds, it’s got to be 90 minutes,” said Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka, who had Traore play on the wing closest to his sideline so Traore couldn’t hide him from his instruction.
Wolves made Traore their record transfer signing last season at $22.8 million. Nuno unlocked a new version of Traore by moving him to wingback, where he could receive the ball deeper and pick up momentum on his dribbles while maintaining a defensive structure. The newfound role is reminiscent of Victor Moses’ dribbling directness maximized under Antonio Conte during Chelsea’s title run. Both managers played a three centerback formation that allowed their wingbacks to drive and attack opposition, unbalancing opponents from wide. Paradoxically, the added defensive responsibility appeared to give Traore more confidence in attack, as if it gave his dribbles clarity within the wider scheme of play.
“We are building a player,” Nuno remarked after one particularly well-rounded Traore performance in the Europa League.
“He’s physically a man, and has been for some time,” added Sherwood about the then-19-year-old Traore.
Along with his newfound respect within the wider footballing conscious came a virality with his muscular physique. Traore was quick to add that he never lifts weights and gains muscle naturally. There are also the requisite myths surrounding his athleticism. Traore says that several NFL team tried to recruit him for tryouts when he was with Barcelona, thus flipping the refrain of what would happen if America’s best athletes played soccer.
Athletic feats aside, Traore’s potential is being actualized in real time. The mixtape dribbles and bursts of pace are turning into real assists and goals. As an idea, Traore was already a dangerous supersub who could impact a game against tired legs. But having started 17 matches this season, and considering his admirers, a larger, European stage appears inevitable. Nuno could only say that Traore is currently happy at Wolves. Traore suggested going to Real Madrid to get back at Barcelona. That he can mention those clubs shows how much he’s grown. Learning the tactical side helped develop his dribbling game, and that same innate ability will also transcend any tactical approach designed to stop him.