Unstoppable but unproductive: Barcelona look to solve the Adama Traore conundrum

Attacker leaves Premier League Wolves for return to Spain where Xavi becomes latest manager to try and make most of unique talent

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If they are to prove Adama Traore’s final contributions in a Wolves shirt, they were out of character. He came off the bench against Southampton to score an injury-time goal. A substitute at Brentford, he found the net again, even if it was chalked off.

But as he returns to Barcelona, initially on loan, with the option of a permanent deal and with the possibility the Premier League has seen the last of one of its most idiosyncratically entertaining talents, the statistics show a mere eight goals in 160 appearances in England’s top flight.

There were only 14 assists, too, none of them this season, while the clincher against Southampton was a belated first goal. Few have terrorised so many defences without actually delivering the killer blow.

The fact he has gone to Barcelona, albeit an impecunious Barcelona who have somehow managed to fund his wages, is an illustration of his unique talents. He has a distinguished fan club. “He is a motorcycle,” Pep Guardiola once said. “Unplayable in moments; what a player,” Jurgen Klopp stated.

Antonio Conte wanted Traore at Tottenham, but tellingly as a wing-back, to use his mesmeric dribbling to get Spurs up the field and take opponents out of the game but without much expectation he would score.

Unstoppable but unproductive, Traore is a conundrum of a forward, one Wolves manager Bruno Lage failed to solve. Wolves averaged under a goal a game both this season and last. Pick Traore and it places a greater responsibility on the other forwards to score.

All of which Barcelona should know. “The people from the academy should know what my qualities are,” said a graduate of La Masia. Xavi Hernandez’s reign looks both a nostalgia project, taking Barcelona back to their roots, and a youthful rebrand.

And yet Traore feels the least Barcelona-esque player ever to emerge from their youth system. If Xavi was a byword for tiki-taka, Traore seems his opposite, the serial solo runner.

Barcelona’s ethos revolves around passing, Traore’s around sprinting. Perhaps it makes him better suited to a counter-attacking team than a possession side. His methods are very different. Traore took to greasing his arms to prevent opponents from tugging him back.

Their tactics meant he dislocated his shoulder four times in 2019-20, while 24 players were booked for fouling him in his first 26 games. Other statistics can highlight his uniqueness. He completed 160 dribbles in the Premier League last season. The next most was 88.

There was Traore and then there was everyone else. Defenders can be confounded. “I’ve never felt so powerless against someone,” said Trent Alexander-Arnold in 2020.

The challenge for every manager has been to turn those rare talents into a greater end product, to unlock his extraordinary potential and make him a regular match-winner. Certainly Traore can beat the best: three of those eight goals came in wins against Manchester City.

Rewind to his Middlesbrough days, however, and Tony Pulis used to switch Traore from one wing to the other at half-time so he was on the touchline nearest him and could coach him mid-match.

Now the task falls to Xavi, the Catalan antidote to Pulis. “I’m happy that Xavi has trusted me and I hope to return that confidence on the pitch,” said Traore. “I will have the opportunity to learn from a coach who is a legend at the club. I always say that an Adama who doesn’t learn from the day before is a lost Adama.”

As it is, Wolves have lost Adama, perhaps permanently, with memories of some scorching surges from the roadrunner but perhaps also the sense that their explosive enigma should have been more decisive.

Updated: January 30, 2022, 11:46 AM