The Making, and Remaking, of Adama Traoré
LEICESTER, England — There seemed to be genuine pleasure in Jürgen Klopp’s voice as he said it. Klopp, the Liverpool manager, had been asked, not long after his Premier League-leading side had crushed Leicester City on Boxing Day, to assess its next obstacle: Wolves. A “very dangerous” team, he said; he was full of praise for the “incredible” work of its coach, Nuno Espírito Santo.
And then, it seemed, his mind drifted to one player in particular, the one member of the Wolves squad who has tended to draw everyone’s focus. “It looks like Traoré finally found his manager,” Klopp said, smiling.
Klopp has known about Adama Traoré for a long time. Seven years or so, in fact, back to the days when he was still manager of Borussia Dortmund. He was not alone then, either: Traoré was the sort of teenager whom everyone had heard about, word of his talent drifting out from Barcelona’s academy, causing ears to prick up and scouts to scurry across Europe to get a look at him. “It was always clear it would happen one day,” Klopp said that night in Leicester.
What is not clear is why that day took so long to arrive. Traoré will turn 24 on Saturday — two days after he faces Klopp, and Liverpool, again — and yet it is only this season that he has become a first-team regular for an elite team, starting to earn the sort of recognition his reputation long promised.
Some of that attention — like a call-up to Spain’s national team — has been welcome; some of it — like the fact that only four players have been fouled more often in the Premier League this season — less so. Both, though, are compliments at heart, proof of Traoré’s development and his status. Both have taken rather longer to arrive than might have been expected.
The story of why that is serves to illustrate how soccer handles — or, rather, tends to mishandle — players with unique skill sets, those who are not readily categorized by position, those who are not easily folded into a team’s structure.
That Traoré had talent has been obvious from the start: not just his speed and his strength, but what one former coach calls his “remarkable balance,” the traits that earned him a place at Barcelona’s academy at age 8 and, at one point, led to the suggestion that he explore the idea of becoming an N.F.L. running back.
Any soccer coach wants a player that quick and powerful; those physical gifts are, after all, potent weapons. Not every coach — indeed, perhaps not the majority of coaches — knows quite how to deploy such a player.
“He had so much speed and so much possibility,” said Albert Benaiges, one of his coaches at La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy. “But we were not sure whether he was best used as a right back or a right winger. By the time he was 18 or so, we knew he could be a professional, but we did not know exactly what he was going to be.”
In the summer of 2015, Barcelona decided that Traoré would be better suited to a more “open, dynamic” style of soccer, according to Benaiges: playing Barcelona’s intricate short-passing game did not allow him to make the most of his gifts. He was sold to Aston Villa, bought not on the recommendation of the club’s manager — Tim Sherwood — but because he stood out to the club’s data analysts.
Sherwood knew immediately that Traoré could be the sort of player who “frightened opponents to death.”
“He could go from nought to 60 in about two seconds,” Sherwood said. “But he was like an elastic band that had been stretched too tight: every so often he would snap. I very rarely saw him, because he was always injured.”
When he was fit, Sherwood deployed Traoré as an impact substitute: Villa was struggling against relegation, and he deemed Traoré too unreliable to build a team around. Eric Black — one of Sherwood’s successors — described him as “one of the quickest players I have seen for years,” but admitted he was “indisciplined.” He barely played in the final few months of the season. When Villa was relegated, he was sold to Middlesbrough.
There, he worked with three coaches. Aitor Karanka, the first, devised a special program for him, an attempt to polish his talent: one afternoon a week, Traoré would sit in Karanka’s office and go through video of his recent performances, his manager pointing out what he had done well and where he might improve, particularly in his work off the ball.
Karanka’s successor, Garry Monk, urged Traoré to abide by the team’s structure, to remember “what the team shape is and what is needed from you.” By the time Tony Pulis, his third and final coach at Middlesbrough, arrived, Traoré was “a little bit confused tactically.
“He had been trying to please everybody,” Pulis said.
As Pulis sees it, Traoré had become something of a managerial pet project: every coach wanted to prove he was the one who would be able to marshal his talent, to show that they were the one he had been waiting for. “He had forgotten what his real strengths were,” Pulis said. “We straightened that out.”
Rather than formal video sessions, Pulis would invite Traoré into his office for a cup of tea and a chat about Lionel Messi. There was no tough love: if Traoré had to be reprimanded or criticized, it was always in private. “He’s a lovely boy, but some players are a little more insecure than others,” Pulis said. “He would always question himself, rather than whether the coach was giving him the right instructions.”
Instructions — particularly for defensive work — were kept to a minimum; Pulis wanted Traoré to focus on what he did well. “It was very simple stuff,” he said. “We wanted him to fill spaces, track his opposing fullback.”
That is not to say it was all light touch: in some games, Pulis would switch Traoré’s position so that he was on the wing closest to the manager, so that he could coach him through games. The key, Pulis said, was gaining his trust. It worked: the two are still in touch. Even now, Pulis will send Traoré a message if he feels he has played well, or if he has noticed something he might have done differently.
Traoré’s success at Wolves — he signed for the club after its promotion to the Premier League, in 2018 — can be traced to Nuno’s decision to try a similar approach. Initially, his plan was to harness Traoré’s abilities in service of the team. He asked him to focus on making specific runs, or to follow certain patterns. As others had found, though, the strategy seemed to dull Traoré’s primary threat.
Gradually, Nuno and his staff realized the precise opposite was required. He accepted that, with Traoré in his team, he could never have what his coaches refer to as a “symmetrical playbook.” Traoré’s qualities could not be maximized in a traditional, neat formation.
Instead, he encouraged the rest of his players to adapt their games to allow Traoré to flourish, to accept that there would be times when he would lose the ball, or make runs so that he might find space. They encouraged him to take risks, rather than chastising him for daring to be different.
It worked: over the course of the last 18 months, the players have recognized the best way to utilize the weapon at their disposal. The team now instinctively shifts to cover whatever shortfall Traoré leaves. As opponents have become more conscious of the threat he poses, Nuno has started to change his position during games. His teammates dutifully adapt.
At the same time, Traoré has worked on his own shortcomings: improving his crossing, learning to control his speed to allow teammates to catch up with his bursts of pace, integrating his own qualities into Nuno’s plans.
After all this time, as Klopp said, Traoré has found his manager: one who does not want to change him, but one who is happy to change for him. Everyone who has worked with him agrees that Traoré is unique. It took until Pulis, and then Nuno, for anyone to understand what that means.
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