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Middlesbrough's Adama Traore is a unique talent with much to learn

Adama Traore

Middlesbrough’s Adama Traore is the Premier League’s most exciting young player right now, but can he find the end product to match his incredible pace and power? Nick Wright looks at the stats and speaks to the coach who brought him through the youth ranks at Barcelona...

Adama Traore has had to be patient. The 20-year-old hardly featured after swapping the comforts of boyhood club Barcelona for the harsh reality of a relegation battle at Aston Villa last season, and it was only this October, 15 months after he first arrived in England, that he was finally handed his first Premier League start in Middlesbrough's 0-0 draw with Arsenal.

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It was an exhilarating full debut. Traore's extraordinary speed terrified Arsene Wenger's side at the Emirates Stadium, with even his old academy team-mate Hector Bellerin struggling to keep up as he ripped into Arsenal time and again. If it wasn't for Petr Cech's sharp reflexes, he would have marked the occasion with a winning goal.

For Andres Carrasco, a former Barcelona youth coach who spent three years with Traore in La Masia, it was a familiar sight. "He is the fastest player I have ever coached," he tells Sky Sports. "When he was 14 or 15, they had to kill him to get the ball off him. We would be defending a corner, it would come out to him on the edge of the box and he would go and score. Box-to-box. Driving, dribbling every player."

Adama Traore's pace caused Arsenal problems during Middlesbrough's 0-0 draw at the Emirates
Image: Adama Traore came through La Masia in the same age group as Hector Bellerin

He has continued in that vein this season. Traore has started every game since that day at the Emirates. His explosive, slaloming runs have got supporters off their seats, and the Spaniard has now played the full 90 minutes in games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea. He may have struggled to make an impact at Villa, but it reflects his growing importance to Aitor Karanka's side.

When it comes to dribbling, no one else even comes close. Traore's low centre of gravity and muscular frame allow him to ride challenges and stay on his feet, and his blistering acceleration is complemented by excellent close control and an absolute determination to beat his man.

When he was 14 or 15, they had to kill him to get the ball off him. We would be defending a corner, it would come out to him on the edge of the box and he would go and score.
Andres Carrasco on Adama Traore

Traore is averaging 8.6 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. He set a season-high when he completed 12 out of 13 in Boro's 1-0 loss to Chelsea, and despite starting fewer than half of their games, his overall total of 48 successful dribbles is the third-highest in the league. Wilfried Zaha and Eden Hazard are only narrowly ahead of him despite playing more than twice as many minutes.

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Premier League 2016/17 - Most frequent dribblers

Player Team Successful dribbles / 90 Dribble success rate
Adama Traore Middlesbrough 8.6 81%
Adnan Januzaj Sunderland 4.7 65%
Wilfried Zaha Crystal Palace 4.7 55%
Eden Hazard Chelsea 4.4 70%
Mousa Dembele Tottenham 4.3 88%

The numbers are remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented. Claudio Ranieri compared Traore to a motorbike ahead of Leicester's 2-2 draw with Boro last weekend, and even his own team-mates dread facing him in training. "He's a bit of a beast to play against," admitted Ben Gibson recently. 

Some of the best defenders in the Premier League would vouch for that, but for all his talent, Traore has weaknesses as obvious as his strengths. Most notably, there is the glaring lack of end product. Traore is a formidable outlet on the counter-attack, but he is yet to contribute a goal or assist for Boro. A deeper look at the stats is even more revealing.

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Despite being the Premier League's most prolific dribbler, Traore has only created three scoring chances this season. It is, by some distance, the lowest return of the players to have made the most dribbles in the division. For every thrilling run with the ball at his feet, there is a misplaced pass or a poor decision. Only four of his 26 crosses have found a team-mate.

Premier League 2016/17 - Chances created by top 10 dribblers

Player Team Successful dribbles Chances created
Dimitri Payet West Ham 35 47
Alexis Sanchez Arsenal 39 35
Eden Hazard Chelsea 58 27
Paul Pogba Man Utd 37 26
Yannick Bolasie Everton 39 20
Sadio Mane Liverpool 36 18
Wilfried Zaha Crystal Palace 58 18
Raheem Sterling Man City 36 17
Michail Antonio West Ham 42 13
Adama Traore Middlesbrough 48 3

It's part of the reason his manager has described him as a "challenge" to coach. Traore has wowed fans with his electrifying displays, but Karanka's comments bordered on scathing after Boro's 2-0 win over Bournemouth. "The cross for the goal? At least he did one good thing in the game," he said. "I have to keep teaching him things. He is young and he still has a lot of things to learn."

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Carrasco knows that better than most after their time together in La Masia. "Adama is a good person and a funny guy," he chuckles. "He was always forgetting everything. Always, always, always. He would forget his passport, he would forget everything!"

Traore went on to become a key player for Barcelona B and made a handful of appearances for the senior side, scoring a spectacular individual goal in a Copa del Rey tie against Huesca, but there were always doubts about the other areas of his game. Traore had been with Barcelona since the age of eight, but he wasn't a typical Barcelona player.

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20:  Adama Traore of Middlesbrough shoots on goal as Gary Cahill of Chelsea blocks during the Premier League match betwee
Image: Traore unleashes a shot during Middlesbrough's 1-0 defeat by Chelsea

"Maybe that was the main problem for him in the Barca first team," says Carrasco, who now works as an assistant coach for Western Sydney Wanderers in the Australian A-League. "He couldn't think. He would just go, take the ball and dribble everywhere. At Barcelona, you need more than that."

At Middlesbrough, Karanka is aiming to bring it out of him, but it means more work without the ball, too. "It's normal that everybody is excited when he has the ball," he said last month. "But he has the ball for three minutes in a game and the rest of the game is 87 minutes, so we have to be careful."

Traore didn't have to worry about defensive duties in his Barcelona days, and his average position in Middlesbrough's 2-2 draw with Leicester shows he is still adapting to his new responsibilities. Traore's touches came in far more advanced areas than any of his team-mates. It was no surprise to see him substituted as they defended their lead.

Middlesbrough's average positions in their 2-2 draw with Leicester show Adama Traore (37) in an advanced position
Image: Middlesbrough's average positions in their 2-2 draw with Leicester show Traore (37) in an advanced position

Karanka says he has spent hours alone with Traore at Middlesbrough's Rockliffe Park training ground studying video footage to improve his tactical awareness, and it's obviously an area in need of more attention.

The youngster is an extraordinary athlete, but Premier League tracking data shows that, with the exception of goalkeeper Victor Valdes, he actually covers less ground than any other Boro player at 9.03km per 90 mins. By way of contrast, it's a full three kilometers less than Calum Chambers and Marten de Roon. Is he really working hard enough?

It's a clue as to why his manager is pushing him so hard, and it's a clue as to why he featured so sparingly during Aston Villa's fight against relegation. It has been a long wait for Traore and he still has a long way to go, but now is his chance. If he can find a way to make the most of his thrilling talent, Barcelona could yet regret the day they let him go.

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