Adama Traoré arrived in England trailing a reputation as an astonishing hybrid of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Perhaps predictably, it did not take him long to disappoint his new public.
“It was good to hear that from Tim,” says Middlesbrough’s elemental winger, diplomatically recalling the moment when Tim Sherwood, the manager who brought him from Barcelona to Aston Villa for £7m during the summer of 2015, described his game as “a bit of Messi and a bit of Ronaldo”.
He added: “But when people think it’s possible that I can play like this, and then I don’t, those people question you.”
Considering that Traoré is still only 20 and arrived at Villa Park having made only four appearances for Barcelona’s first team, it seems no surprise that he struggled to marry extraordinary pace and dribbling ability with an end-product.
As the relegation-bound Villa entered a tailspin and Sherwood was replaced by Rémi Garde, Traoré became a scapegoat for the club’s wider problems. With his £40,000-a-week wage depicted as a millstone, there was barely concealed glee when, on last summer’s transfer deadline day, he was dispatched to Teesside in exchange for Albert Adomah.
After a slow start, Traoré has begun Boro’s past five games, swiftly becoming a crowd favorite and lending Aitor Karanka’s side a more attacking, improvisational, pace-suffused dimension which has not only upset full-backs but also helped improve results. While everyone acknowledges that the elemental, force-of-nature aspect of his game needs balancing with increased tactical discipline, Hull City’s defense will not relish facing Traoré when they visit the Riverside for the “relegation six-pointer” on Monday night.
“Aitor tells me I need to work on my tactics and the way I sometimes play the game because here in England it’s different to Spain,” he says. “If the team’s playing on the counterattack, I have to go back and defend. At Barcelona, it was a bit different. There wasn’t as much focus on defending and ‘doing your job’ when you didn’t have the ball. Aitor takes me to one side a lot and tells me the things he wants to work on. I don’t want to become a totally different player, but I know there are things I have to improve.”
After coaching him in Spain’s national junior teams, Boro’s manager always appreciated Traoré’s true potential, always suspected that, supported by the right tactical scaffolding, he would flourish. “It was difficult at Villa because they’d struggled for two years and I’d come mainly from Barcelona B in the second division in Spain,” says this Catalan born-and-bred son of Malian parents. “I needed time to adapt but Tim Sherwood and Rémi Garde had to win games; they didn’t have time to think about little things about my game. It was a bad moment, it was such a hard, sad experience.”
One point ahead of Hull, Boro have won twice all season but recent draws at Arsenal and Manchester City offer real cause for optimism. It helps that Karanka now possesses not only one of the Premier League’s fastest individuals, but also Europe’s leading dribbler.
The latest statistics suggest Traoré has completed the most dribbles of anyone in the continent’s principal leagues, pushing Barcelona’s Neymar into second place as assorted defenders were dodged or simply bounced off his astonishingly muscular 5ft 10in frame. “People tell me I’m the first in dribbling,” he says, impressive biceps straining the material in his tight, short-sleeved T-shirt. “But it’s important that, after dribbling, I cross or pass or score. If I don’t, then dribbling is pointless.”
Although others, notably Southampton’s Shane Long and Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch, have recorded faster on-pitch speeds in England’s top tier this season, few would relish racing him. “When I was at Barcelona Pep Guardiola told me: ‘You’re the fastest in the club,’” he says. “Maybe I’ll be the fastest in the world but it’s only good when you cross or shoot at the end. With the ball I can run 37kmh but I’ve never been timed without it because my job is to play football. I’m not an athlete.”
Occasionally his feet seem to outpace his brain. “I sometimes make the wrong decisions but it’s because I haven’t started many Premier League games,” he counters. “I need to work hard on my technique but I think I’ve shown what I can do in my last performances.”
In the process the name Messi has shifted from representing a weight on his shoulders to a shining light. “In training at Barcelona Messi worked hard all the time,” he recalls. “People would say ‘This game will be easy for you, they’re not a good team’, but he ignored them. Messi could maybe get away with not trying 100% because he’s the best player in the world. But he’s the first at training. He’s very professional. He was very good to watch and learn from.
“A lot of players in his position would relax sometimes. But, because of how he works, he’s won the Ballon d’Or five times. I need to learn from this.”