“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” – How Adama Traoré finally made it
“Here’s Traoré – look at the strength… Traoré! A star is born!”
Adama Traoré’s first senior goal, the 11th in a 12-1 aggregate annihilation of Huesca at the hands of Barcelona in the 2014/15 Copa del Rey, was the exciting youngster in a microcosm. A sprinkling of speed and dancing feet to go with the aforementioned strength left defenders in his wake as he streaked across the greasy Camp Nou turf before calmly slotting the ball into the back of the net. Unfortunately for him, the commentator’s prophecy didn’t quite come to fruition, at least not that night, and not in the way most expected it. Traoré’s star was born, not under the Catalan sun, but after his career took a path more convoluted than a Christopher Nolan classic – in the heart of the West Midlands, with Wolves.
Born to Malian immigrants on the outskirts of Barcelona, Traoré developed mental fortitude well before the impressive physique that makes him so unique today, having spent his early days in the violence-stricken, largely immigrant La Florida de l’Hospitalet. While he saw his mates, on and off the pitch, join the local gangs, the temptation never got the better of Adama and his elder brother Mohamed, who enrolled at Espanyol’s academy. The former, of course, headed to the nearby La Masia.
Born in the maternity ward just around the corner from the Camp Nou, there was little doubt that 8-year-old Traoré would feel at home amidst the club’s swanky facilities, a stark departure as they were from his Los Bloques’s dusty 5-a-side pitches.
Typical of his style on the pitch, Traoré’s development through the crowded ranks at La Masia was explosive. Having consistently played in higher age groups as a child due to his ability to ‘take in and carry out tactical instructions from coaches’ and ‘intensity and desire to work’, it came as no surprise to the insiders at the academy when his development was fast-tracked in a matter of three months during the 2013/14 campaign.
He shot up from the Juvenil A side in September to the B team in October, followed by his first-team bow in November. Earmarked as ‘one of the most important prospects we have in our academy’ by then manager Tata Martino, Traoré became the first player to be handed his senior debut by the Argentine. Three days after making his first La Liga appearance when he came on for Neymar in the 4-0 win over Granada, Traoré got his first taste of Champions League action, replacing Cesc Fàbregas as his side chased the game in the 2-1 loss to Ajax. It seemed the only way was up for the electric Spaniard.
That proved to be a false dawn however, as Traoré did not appear for the first team beyond these two cameos. The following season, his involvement was restricted to another two substitute appearances for the first team as the ‘MSN’ led the club to an unprecedented treble. It was clear to the 18-year-old that first-team opportunities lay away from the Camp Nou.
Breaking the silence on his departure recently, Traoré claimed, “There were a few problems with the club – some misunderstandings and so I decided to leave because I wanted to develop as a player.
“I’d rather not go into what happened with me and the club. I didn’t leave in the best way, but I took the decision to leave, and I don’t regret it”.
His fine performances with the B team convinced Aston Villa to take a £7million punt on Traoré in the summer of 2015. Having escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth the season before, there was no great escape for the Villans this time however, as their long stay in the Premier League came to an end with relegation at the end of the campaign.
Traoré endured a frustrating time on a personal level too, with involvement once again limited to just ten appearances under Tim Sherwood and then Remi Garde before a metatarsal injury in January effectively ended his season, and with it, his short and rather forgettable stint at Villa Park.
Scathing and hilarious in equal measure, this assessment of Traoré’s struggles summed things up, “He started one game in the League Cup, scored, and frequently came on as an 82nd-minute sub in the Premier League when Villa were already something like two or three goals down to showcase his own unique interpretation of the game: ‘How far can I sprint up the right touchline without passing the ball?'”
Looking back on his time in Birmingham, Traoré claimed, “Tim Sherwood wasn’t winning but it was difficult for me because I came from the second division in Spain and I needed a little time in the Premier League to see what the league was like and to adapt to the different tactics and the style of play.
“But Tim Sherwood needed to win. He didn’t have time to worry about a player coming from the second division in Spain, the only objective for him was needing to win because the team wasn’t doing well. He didn’t get time to think that this player needs time so you can explain about the Premier League and the different tactics.”
Not one to dwell on the past, Traoré sought to bounce back quickly, joining the side that took Villa’s place in the top-flight, Middlesbrough. Perhaps he hoped that the strong Spanish flavour in the side, brought from ex-Real Madrid assistant manager Aitor Karanka and the likes of Víctor Valdés, Antonio Barragán and Álvaro Negredo would help him find his feet.
Unfortunately, he hoped wrong, as he suffered his second successive relegation with Boro. On a personal front, it was much of the same story – limited minutes, a prolonged goal drought and an inability to influence games. This time around, there was no life jacket thrown to him by a Premier League team, meaning he was destined for the Championship.
Halfway into another torrid campaign for him and his team, Traoré finally found an ally, and an unlikely one at that. When Garry Monk was sacked by the club six months into his ill-fated tenure, Tony Pulis, English football’s survival specialist was called upon to reinvigorate the side. Although not known for his ability to work with players possessing skill and flair in spades as Traoré did, Pulis, the eighth manager to work with him in two and a half years, finally tapped into some of that seemingly limitless potential.
Ahead of tonight’s #LUFC game, here’s a graph of players averaging 3+ dribbles per 90 in the Championship this season. Adama Traoré appears to be a comic book superhero. pic.twitter.com/7vc9gjdiU6
— Jamie Kemp (@jamiemkemp) March 2, 2018
It was akin to the flick of a switch. Suddenly Traoré was the player that his coaches from formative years said he would be – terrorising defences, stretching the opposition and running full-backs ragged – with the end product to go with it. Pulis later claimed, “He’d make a mistake and look across to see if you were shouting at him. He was like a cowered cat who had been smacked too many times. We had to get that out of him.”
Along with the small matter of being simply unplayable at times, Traoré went on to notch 5 goals and 9 assists in the second half of 2017/18, even as Boro fell to his former employers Aston Villa in the Championship promotion play-offs. An immediate bounce back to the top-flight may have eluded his side, but the electric winger’s stock had sharply risen.
Links with Newcastle and Chelsea persisted over the summer, but it was Wolves who triggered Traoré’s £18million release clause to bring him up with them on their return to the Premier League. Perhaps wooed by the overwhelming Iberian presence in the side, led by manager Nuno Espírito Santo, or by the hitherto unseen ambition shown by a promoted club, Traoré prepared to take a third crack at life in England’s top level.
After an indifferent first season at Molineux which saw him restricted to cameos off the bench, he began to resemble the forlorn figure he was in his previous two clubs, lacking the confidence Pulis had instilled in him.
All that changed on the 6th of October, when Wolves visited Manchester City. Traoré played his part from the right-hand side in a dogged defensive effort from the away side, as is the norm when facing Pep Guardiola’s relentless Sky Blues on their patch. In the last 15 minutes however, he showed the attacking prowess everyone believed he was capable of – scoring two near-identical goals on the counter courtesy of two excellent assists from Raúl Jiménez. Having scored just once in his previous 72 League appearances, Traoré doubled his tally in an afternoon, on the patch of the record-breaking Champions no less.
Traoré is a player who feeds off energy and rhythm, near impossible to stop when he gets going, and even more so when he believes in his abilities. Having rediscovered that swagger at the Etihad, he has gone on from strength to strength to the point where it wouldn’t be outlandish to place him in the team of the season.
Whispers of a Spain call-up were getting stronger before the halt in action, as were rumours of Europe’s elite ready to stump up £70million for his services. The prolonged break in action is bad news for all who love the game, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Traoré, a player who was building up such a head of steam that only he knows where his ceiling lies. Hopefully, today is another day closer to the return of the beautiful game, and along with it, players who keep us on the edge of our seats, chief among them stars like Adama Traoré.
Written by Kabir Ali
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