Adama Traore: No one thrills and frustrates like Barca’s Boro boy

John Nicholson
Adama Traore in action for Wolves.

After Adama Traore completed a loan move to return to Barcelona from Wolves, John Nicholson gushes over the greased-up, lightning Spain winger…

 

Who’s this then?
Adama Traoré Diarra turned 26 on January 25 and is a Spanish flying winger or wing back who has just returned to Barcelona on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers. At 5’ 10” he isn’t the tallest player but he is built like the proverbial brick outhouse, with a body that is more like that of a middle-weight boxer than a footballer. A Men’s Health wet dream, he’s ripped like an oiled-up demi-God, he has muscles where no muscles ought to be and what’s more, he knows how to use them. I don’t believe you could knock him over with a wrecking ball.

He is also one of the fastest runners in world football last year measured at 23.48mph, just 0.01mph behind Kyle Walker, though there is a feeling that Adama would be even faster now than when measured. However, while his pace is jaw-dropping, it is his speed with the ball that is even more impressive. You have to be able to keep the ball under your control. Football isn’t athletics, as much as some seem to value it as such. It’s OK being super-fast but you have to use it effectively. And that’s where the controversy about Mr T is. Some say he didn’t have the end product, others said he was thrilling to watch and that’s what football is all about.

He got his start at Barcelona in 2013 playing 63 games for the B team, scoring eight times. He moved up to the first team but only turned out four times before being bought by Aston Villa in August 2015 for seven million quid.

This was to be Villa’s relegation season and he only played 10 times before, in 2016, transferring to the mighty Middlesbrough. It was an unusual move for him. You’d have to be blind not to see his potential, but he was very much an exotic player for Pulis Ball, primarily because he was entertaining and by the end of his time at Boro, Pulis was playing football so mind-numbingly boring that you could’ve used it as novocaine. Even so, Tony loved him and Adama won Middlesbrough’s Fans’ Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year awards for the 2017-18 season. We absolutely bloody loved him.

Adama Traore during his time at Middlesbrough.

Eventually, Boro cashed in their fast man and took £18 million off Wolves for him and sent him down the road with a parmo in each pocket. And he’s been there until today, now the Catalans have coaxed him back to Barcelona. Spurs were supposed to sign him, to fit into their new manager’s system, but Daniel Levy was too useless to make it happen and has probably already been put in a headlock by Antonio Conte with threats of him wearing concrete shoes at the bottom of the Thames unless he does something right and quick.

He’s turned out for Spain eight times in the last couple of years too. Lovely Adama. What a star.

 

Why the love?
I asked former Evening (I still can’t call it Teesside) Gazette Boro man Phil Tallentire to sum up Adama.

“Few players have made a greater impression in such a short space of time at Middlesbrough as Adama Traore. The raw stats – 45 league starts and five goals – don’t come close to illustrating his mind-blowing on-field impact in a Boro shirt. Impact with the supporters that is. He thrilled, he wowed, he amazed them. He had the fans on the edge of their seats as soon as he took possession of the ball. He was box office. It was love at first sight. Sceptical about his consistency, Aitor Karana and Garry Monk used him sparingly while Tony Pulis recognised his USP and built a team around the Spaniard.

‘Give it to Adama’, the Welshman’s plea to lesser mortals wearing Boro colours, threatened to become the club’s new motto. Traore was a rocket-propelled powerhouse of a player with a body-builder’s physique. He destroyed defenders with his jet-fuelled feet. No question, opposing sides rarely had an answer to Adama’s awe-inspiring attributes. And yet? For all his raw pace and power, there was a nagging fear that Traore’s game was missing a critical element. The much talk about (lack of) end product was – arguably still is – his Kryptonite.

He’s unpredictable, a wild card, a loose cannon. Managers don’t quite trust him to follow the plan. Traore’s an untameable talent. And yet? He’s just re-signed for Barcelona where he’s linked up with another, rather less popular, ex-Boro attacker, Martin Braithwaite. Time will tell, but perhaps signing two gifted but unpredictable players says more about Barca’s financial plight than the quality of Traore and Braithwaite. No doubt, though, the Nou Camp collective will enjoy watching Adama in full flow as much as the Riverside regulars did.”

And that sums him up perfectly.

Who doesn’t love someone who can run really really fast? When you’re sitting in the freezing cold, nothing gets you on your feet more than seeing someone knock it past their marker, sprint away from them onto the ball, run at 23mph down the wing, then boot the ball behind the goal.

Nothing excites more than the man who has the beating of the opposition for pace, accelerates into wide open spaces then balloons the ball out of play when he tries to pass it. It is hugely entertaining and massively frustrating.

Adama offers not just excitement but possibility; the possibility that this time, he’ll do something magic with the ball. When he played for Middlesbrough, Pulis said he was a lovely fella, even if he wasn’t always sure what to do with the ball when he’d beaten the opposition for speed.

He’s played 154 games for Wolves and scored 11 goals across three and a half seasons and just as you could at The Riverside, you still hear the roar from the Molineux crowd as soon as he gets the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times he’s gone headlong into nowhere at top speed, that promise that this will be the time he delivers is enough. There are very few players who can elicit that sort of hopeful response from a crowd despite rarely delivering a goal.

In fairness his assist numbers are sometimes pretty good, 10 in his first season at Boro, nine for Wolves in 2019-20. But this season has so far been particularly fruitless with just one strike and no assists. However, stats do not come near to telling his story. His truth does not reside on a spreadsheet but in the soul of those watching him. OK, his final ball might not be perfect, but with Adama it is all about the journey not the destination.

It’s not like he’s a speedy whippet of a man, no, he’s built to bounce off. If he had a better football brain that worked as fast as his legs, he’d been an unstoppable force, capable of winning a game all on his own. It’s just that when he gets to the opposition penalty box, his mind too often seems to slip a gear, end up in neutral and the moment of danger is sometimes lost.

However, he must have been doing something right for Bruno Lage because he’s played pretty much every game this season for him and Wolves are having a very good, if rather odd season. Lying eighth, only Manchester City have let in fewer goals, only Norwich and Burnley have scored less goals. Given that notionally Adama is part of the defence, this side of his game must be working effectively every bit as their low number of goals scored reveal his lack of finishing power.

Some have said he needs to slow down and think about his final ball more but does anyone really want to lose his dynamic speed? Of course, one of the problems with being faster than everyone else, is that you out-run your team-mates too.

It may also be the case that his pace distracts us from his other qualities. He is good at holding the ball up, largely because you can’t get around him, nor go through him; you bounce off him like a rubber ball off a wall. While he can out-sprint anyone over 20, 50 or 100 metres, he’s also exceptional over five.

Watching his reels, it is remarkable how many times he’s in a tight situation with a defender and then is suddenly two strides ahead of him. It’s almost like the defender is held back by an invisible force for a split second, but it is Adama’s pace across a short space of grass that creates that effect. Fascinating and absolute box office.

Three great moments
His strength here is incredible…

 

Speed Speed Speed. This is joyful stuff…

 

Classic Adama…

What the people say
– ‘His gleeful, neon movement brightened up some drab days at the Riverside, leaving cartoon heat trails like a six year old whirring around a sparkler. Tony Pulis had the team plodding along, thudding bass rhythm section then Adama would slide in on his knees playing a screeching guitar solo with his teeth. When he got the ball at Boro the crowd would slowly rise to their feet as one Pavlovian dog waiting for the ding of pleasure as he hit the afterburners. And hold their breath. Then after his cross flew over the entire crowd would exhale and deflate and sit down. He was a genuine, untamed, vivid and erratic force of nature that operated on a different plane outside the parallel mundane monochrome game greyed out behind him. I loved every second he was on the pitch. I’m not bothered about “the end product” thing. He was amazing to watch.’  Anthony Vickers, writer.

– His arms are bigger than my legs. Face with tears of joy. Not seen much of him but he tends to get people on the edge of their seats. Think he’d be best in a slightly easier league like the Championship where he could cause the most damage. He’s not quite top PL level.

– He’s moving to Barcelona?! That is….not the Championship. I suppose things might click into place but he’s been threatening to come good for 2-3 seasons now. Seems a lot further away than a year ago.

– Both the most exciting, and most frustrating player i’ve ever seen at Molineux.

– But ultimately you need to throw stats in the bin & enjoy watching him turn on the halfway line & power past the opposition at will. Has there ever been another player like him?

– A player who looked like a force of nature one week and like he was playing in wellies the next. Maybe that was his deal with the devil – unstoppable physical attributes one week, six pints of Heineken export before kick off the next.

– Football is about entertainment – and there is literally nothing more entertaining than seeing Adama pick up the ball just past the half-way line, hearing the entire stadium sit up to attention, and not having the faintest idea what’s going to happen next.

– The most electrifying player I’ve seen at Boro since Juninho. Edge of your seat stuff. He has end product, but the forwards are normally languishing behind or not of great quality.

– Footnote – another reason why Gibson will chase Morris around the moons of Nibia & round the Antares Maelstrom & round perdition’s flames before be he gives him up: His & Derby’s cheating cost us a slim but genuine chance of keeping Traore in the PL.

– When I look at him I would naturally assume he is a bodybuilder or an NFL running back, in fact I am certain he would make one incredible running back if he headed to the States sometime.

Future days
So, the boy is offski for Spain on loan with an option for Barca to buy if they can cobble together the cash. Barca will cover 100 per cent of his salary until June. He’ll be taking his large bottle of baby oil with him to grease up his lats, his delts, and no doubt his felts… or something.

He will join another former Boro man Martin Braithwaite, who he played with at the Riverside. Basically, Barcelona are Boro in the Championship.

It’ll be sad to see him go but I look forward to seeing him at the Camp Nou. Hopefully he can develop his game to have more of an end product to go with his undoubted assets. Maybe Xavi has a sophisticated and original plan for him.

Even so, the move to Barcelona is odd. While he surely would love to play for his boyhood club once more, feeling he has something to prove, is a flying wing back who finds scoring difficult really the answer to many of their problems? The Spurs move at least made sense in Conte’s preferred system.

There’s no doubt he has much to offer, sometimes playing through the middle. His sheer muscular impressiveness means he can receive and keep the ball well. Try getting it off him!

There is a simple joy to how he plays football as long as you enjoy speed and physicality and slamming players off the ball.

At 26 he’s got at least 10 years left in his tank and the feeling that his best days and best form are still ahead is irresistible. He still has the possibility to become a truly remarkable player for club and country.