Is Adama Traore good?

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images /
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Is Adama Traore good? Adama Traore is definitely fast and Adama Traore is definitely strong and Adama Traore is definitely skillful and Adama Traore is definitely the sort of player any number of full-backs-turned-pundits might describe as “a nightmare for defenders.” But is Adama Traore good? That is the question.

In his defense, Traore is still only 21. But while 21 is an age at which players deserve the benefit of the doubt, it’s not an age at which we can’t expect real, tangible, on-pitch contributions from them. Leroy Sane is exactly two weeks older than Traore. Dele Alli turned 21 last week. Raheem Sterling is 22. This is only to mention the three most notable examples in the Premier League, a league that, as a rule, hates young players.

Also in his defense, Traore plays for Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough aren’t an awful team, but for a decent team, they really do have an awful attack. They’ve scored 23 goals in 32 games this season, roughly 0.7 a match. Derby averaged a shade over 0.5 a game in 2007-08, the worst Premier League campaign in history. They also finished with 11 points. Boro are currently on 24.

Last season, Traore played for Aston Villa. Villa were an awful team. They scored roughly the same number of goals per game as this season’s Boro, but conceded at almost twice the rate. They had no redeeming qualities, unless you count the fact they fired Tim Sherwood, which, come to think of it, I do.

In short, Traore hasn’t exactly been well-positioned for success. What is a young winger, in a new league, in a new country, supposed to do in the midst of such desperate incompetence? Would Sane or Alli or Sterling really have been difference-makers for Villa or Boro in a way Traore hasn’t been?

That’s hard to say, but it’s clear all three of those players have benefited from playing under good managers who are invested in their success. Traore has benefited from none of these things. For both Villa and Boro he’s been, basically, a wild card, a (cheap) risk worth taking for two teams whose structural failings in attack have meant throwing on a fast, skillful, unproven 21-year-old is often their most promising route to goal.

The problem is, in 35 league appearances for Villa and Boro, Traore has contributed two assists and zero goals. Again, this certainly has something to do with the quality of those teams, and I suspect Traore has received little by way of detailed tactical instruction (especially when he comes off the bench), but even so, zero is the fewest number of goals it’s possible to score, or at least the greatest number of goals it’s possible to not score, or something.

Traore’s dribbling numbers, in contrast, are sort of mind-boggling. He averages 8.4 successful dribbles per 90 minutes, per WhoScored, almost twice as many as Eden Hazard, who ranks second with 4.5. He attempts 10.9 dribbles per 90, the most in the league. Wilfried Zaha is second with 7.5. That’s a success rate of around 77 percent. The only other players in the league with a successful dribbling percentage above 70 are Hazard, Willian and Mousa Dembele. But again, Traore attempts nearly twice as many as Hazard and almost three times as many as the other two.

Traore, then, is clearly exceptional at running past opposition players with the ball at his feet. But also: the ability to run past players isn’t really a skill if you never do anything once you get to the other side.

At this point, the Traore question comes perilously close to the territory of the great “Does Theo Walcott Have a Football Brain?” debate of 2010. The idea seems to be that if someone could only teach Traore to think, we’d have a formidable player on our hands.

This thesis is supported by Aitor Karanka’s admission, earlier in the season, that he only let Traore play on the side of the pitch next to his technical area so he could tell him what to do, and where to run. It’s also just kind of intuitive. Traore’s dribbling skill appears, on the surface, to be a relatively simple expression of his obvious physical gifts. It seems reasonable, then, to suggest that if he simply adds some decision-making component to his game, the problems will be solved.

But to suggest what is lacking from Traore’s game is a certain mental dimension is to imply, in some Rylean sense, that when he’s dribbling, he’s not thinking. What else could he be doing? To think for Traore, it seems, is to dribble. If this is right, then Traore doesn’t need to learn something new so much as he needs to change how he thinks. And that’s a much more difficult thing to do.

This much I know: Traore has been the most compelling player in every match I’ve ever watched him play, and I’ve literally never seen him score a goal. That in itself is valuable, or at least it should be, especially if you have to watch Middlesbrough every week. He is, if nothing else, a player to enjoy, which is more than most.

But is he good? Not yet, and the path to goodness is rockier than it might appear.

Weekly awards

The Xabi Alonso Award for Not Being Xabi Alonso: Alberto Moreno

With 90:45 on the clock against West Brom at the Hawthorns on Sunday, with his Liverpool side leading 1-0 and facing a corner, Jurgen Klopp turned to, I guess, in some alternate universe, the only man he could: Alberto Moreno. Moreno played less than four minutes in total, and was in possession of the ball only once. But how! After Baggies keeper Ben Foster came up for a corner, Moreno won possession from James McClean, dribbled about 30 yards up the pitch with runners on either side, took a look at the empty goal in front of him and … missed. I still think, even now, Moreno isn’t a complete lost cause of a player, but my goodness is he a knucklehead.

The Tony Hibbert Award For Unlikely Goalscorers: Phil Jagielka

Everton beat Burnley 3-1 at home on Saturday thanks to goals from Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and, obviously, Phil Jagielka, who has now scored in three matches in a row. All three of his goals have been sort of terrible, but they were goals nonetheless, and even more impressive when you consider, prior to his current streak, Jagielka hadn’t scored since May of 2015. Jagielka’s been excellent again this season and, at 34, is one of the league’s most underappreciated elder statesmen. Perhaps Ronald Koeman’s biggest task as he attempts to turn Everton into a top four contender is to plan for life after Jagielka. The Toffees’ most-used center-back this season, Ashley Williams, is 32, Ramiro Funes Mori has shown little to suggest he’s a competent Jagielka stand-in and, while Matthew Pennington and, in particular, Mason Holgate have shown promise, neither is ready to take on Jagielka’s role yet. The Virgil van Dijk rumors make a lot of sense.

The Chelsea Award for Winning Streaks: Tottenham

Since losing 2-0 to Liverpool at Anfield on Feb. 11, Tottenham have won seven league matches in a row by a combined score of 22-4. They’ve beaten, in order, Stoke, Everton, Southampton, Burnley, Swansea, Watford and Bournemouth. With the exception of Everton, those aren’t what anyone would describe as “good” teams, but the ease with which Spurs have been beating them should be the envy of every other top six side not named Chelsea. Liverpool’s title challenge fell apart against Sunderland, Hull and Swansea. Manchester United have drawn approximately 1000 home matches, mostly to bottom half teams, while Manchester City have been inconsistent against everyone, good and bad. Spurs have got a tough-ish run in. They only face two top half teams, Arsenal and Manchester United, but they also travel to Crystal Palace, Leicester and, on the last day of the season, Hull, who could need a result to avoid the drop, and have been much better than their 17th-place position for the past few months.

The Emmanuel Eboue Award for Substitutions: Shane Long

In the middle of a pretty convincing beating at the hands of Manchester City on Saturday, Southampton made time to embroil themselves in an extremely avoidable controversy. Shane Long, who came on as a substitute for James Ward-Prowse after 60 minutes, was withdrawn 20 minutes later, apparently because his manager thought he was injured. Except he wasn’t injured, as became plainly obvious when he stopped to argue with his manager on the way off the pitch, before storming down the tunnel. Strange.

The #ExcellentAdventure Award for Overplayed Gimmicks: #IWasThere

The NBC crew traveled to England for the weekend, which was made to seem probably a lot more momentous than it should have for a show that’s devoted to covering a league based in England. It turns out there really isn’t any difference between watching the two Robbies talk about Tottenham on the touchline at White Hart Lane and watching them talk about Tottenham in a studio a thousand miles away. Instead of watching someone else conduct an extremely bland interview with Harry Kane, we got to watch them conduct an extremely bland interview with Harry Kane. Hooray.