My frustrations were borne out of the fact that he seemed to have made no development as a player since signing nearly 18-months previously, and it looked to me that he had no real intention of working to improve the flaws in his game.
His dribbling ability was clear, he would whiz through defences like a Tazmanian-devil style tornado, but he never seemed to offer anything productive.
His dribbling numbers were confounding stats-nerds all over the world, but they were meaningless without goals and assists in the other columns.
Then a Christmas miracle occurred when Tony Pulis turned up on Boxing Day in his new Christmas scarf, and Traoré seemed to evolve into a world-beater overnight.
Looking back it’s no surprise that Traore struggled previously. He was brought to England by Tim Sherwood to an absolute basket-case of a club at Aston Villa. He had 4 managers in one season at Villa before moving to an almost equally dysfunctional situation at Boro.
It was an awful start to a career for a young player, let alone the fact he was living in a foreign country. Pulis with a decade more experiences than his previous managers put together, seemed to know immediately what to do to get the best out of the player.
But what exactly did Pulis do to help Adama Traoré, and how could I be so wrong about the player? I think the answer comes back to something I wrote in my previous article when I said that, while he had immense ability, he had the footballing brain of a “Sunday League player.”
The way the brain works in sport is interesting. I believe football IQ is the difference between a regular player and a great player, as Johan Cruyff said, “football is played with your head.”
But to perform at the best of your ability you actually have to play without thinking. You can’t have doubt or anxiety, because decisions have to be made in tiny moments. As the Nike slogan from yester-year said, you have to “Just Do It.”
The philosopher Simon Critchley wrote a chapter on this subject in his book “What We Think About When We’re Watching Football” published last year. He wrote “In order to play well the player has to be relaxed, which is the hardest thing, and is what coaches have to instill in their players.
It is the truth that lies behind the banal mantra that coaches tell players: you go out and enjoy yourselves.” This is a fair description of what Pulis has instilled in Traore.
In recent post-match interviews Pulis has actually said he has told Traore to go out there and enjoy himself. It’s true Pulis spends large portions of the match barking instructions at the player, but rather than trying to constantly reign him in like previous managers, Pulis has set Adama Traore free.
Watching Traore now is watching a player perform purely in the moment. His dribbles through oppositions defences are like a jazz solo, totally improvised, totally immersed in the act but without self-consciousness and restrictions. And Traore has found he suddenly has the finishing and delivery to match his pace and dribbling.
Pulis didn’t teach Traore how to cross or shoot. The ability has always been there, but a relaxed Traore is now making better decisions. The pass to Bamford against Leeds for the second goal required a split-second decision.
The Adama Traore of old might have had a split-second of self-doubt and decided to hold onto the ball, allowing defenders to close him down, and force a more difficult pass. The new, liberated Adama Traore, knew on instinct when to make the pass and provided one of the assists of the season.
There was an online video earlier in the season where Gibson and Assombalonga were predicting their teammates Fifa ratings, and when asked to predict Traore’s passing both burst out laughing before Assombalonga asked, “does he pass?”
Back then Traore didn’t trust himself, too often he retreated into holding onto the ball for fear of making a bad pass, only making opportunities more difficult for himself. Tense and uncertain, Traore was a detriment to the team. Now released from those feelings the turnaround in form has been astonishing.
Traore’s relationship with Pulis has been one of the most fascinating stories in man-management of recent times. Previous managers didn’t really know how to handle a talent like him. The truth is, he is playing a different sport to the rest.
If every footballer was built like him the pitch would probably be twice as big, and the match would last half the time. He is a 20-20 cricketer playing in a test match. Pulis has the experience to know sometimes you have to embrace players who posses such unique abilities, rather than try and confine and force them into your systems.
I regret writing that Traore had the mind of a Sunday league player because it was a) offensive b) attention-seeking and c) incorrect. Traore clearly has an outstanding football mind, and when relaxed, produces some of the most breathtaking displays I’ve ever seen.
I started supporting Boro as a 7-year-old in 1994. I was spoilt as a fan, my youth and teenage years were spent watching Juninho, Ravanelli, regular trips to Wembley, cup final wins, European come-backs. I’ve felt a little sorry for kids watching Boro over the past decade, often in a half-empty Riverside watching Championship mediocrity.
The Karanka years were indeed great, but for first time I’m jealous of the younger generation. It must be thrilling for a young kid to watch a player like Adama Traore play for your club. He is basically the embodiment of a video-game player.
Players in the past like Juninho, Merson, Ziege would get you on your feet because when they had the ball you knew something might happen. When Adama Traore has the ball you know something will happen. With 11 games left I’ve found myself not even worrying about promotion.
Traore has transcended what this season means to me. As Middlesbrough will most likely be flooded with offers in the summer, I know I only have limited time left to watch him in a Boro shirt.
Like Traore on the pitch, I’m relaxed and enjoying myself watching Boro these days. And who knows, he might even just lead us back to the Premier League.
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