Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Forget the stats, let’s just embrace Adama Traore

What do you want from a footballer?

Adama Traore (AMA)
Adama Traore (AMA)

It is fundamental question which every supporter should address when it comes to assessing their own team. What qualities are you looking for? What do your players mean to you?

There are fewer than a handful of clubs challenging for the title. For the remainder of the Premier League, it is a life of also-rans, mid-table oblivion or struggle.

Lower down the league ladder, aspirational opportunities are restricted further. Which is why the role of individual players is important. Supporters need someone to engage with regardless of their team’s success or failings. The result is the primary objective but following a team is about identifying with individual performances around that framework. Who is it that brings us to the edge or our seat?

At Wolves there is one player who we are talking about, in this context. He is not the best or the worst player in the team, but he can unquestionably spark a game into life like none of his team-mates. Yet, in over three-and-a-half years at the club, Adama Traore continues to split opinion.

Wolves supporters have sometimes had an uneasy relationship with flair players, eschewing unpredictability in favour of a more dependable sort. One who is seen to be rolling up his sleeves and reliably getting on with the job at hand. A club entrenched in the industrial heartlands, many of its supporters have grown up appreciating the value of a hard day’s work, living a humble and grounded existence.

Steve Bull became such an easy hero to identify with, not just through the weight of his goals, but because he literally came from the factory floor to put a shift in at Wolves every week.

Traore touches a nerve. He does not always appear to be leaving it all out on the pitch. Should he be indulged? The answer, emphatically, is yes. Talents such as Traore are a rarity. Give fans a player who always peaks their interest when he receives the ball. ‘Here we go, Traore’s on the ball, something might happen here.’

Critics will say the ‘might’ is not conveyed into an actuality often enough. But that misses the point. This sport is all about the mights, the what ifs, the possibilities. That is what keeps supporters walking through the turnstiles every single week. Otherwise none of us would leave home, or finish that last drink at the pub and head for the ground. We do not turn up to watch our team for a guaranteed result, a predictability, a known outcome.

Traore is a victim of our statistical zeitgeist. His position lends itself to today’s touchscreen analysis, heatmaps and number-crunching. How many goals? How many crosses? How many dribbles? It is all too easy to pigeonhole players into types they do not fit. Across all media platforms and within professional clubs themselves there are so many vested interests in keeping statistics at the forefront of analysis, but the more they are pushed to the fore, the more that analysis can become clouded.

Assists. Reigning supreme over the variety of nonsensical statistics on offer. When Traore collected the ball five yards outside his own penalty area against West Ham United at Molineux earlier this month and shrugged off the attentions of Vladimir Coufal, skipped over the lunge of Mark Noble then found a way past three more assailants before whipping over a pinpoint cross on to the head of Leander Dendoncker, arriving in the six yard box, that was not an assist. It was a moment of creative spark and flair that only he could have produced. There were some impressive goals on both sides that night, but nobody else on the pitch could have come close to pulling that off.

For the statisticians to chalk that down as an assist would be a farcical reduction of a phenomenal piece of play. Had Traore’s cross not been converted by Dendoncker, the Spaniard would not even have been credited with the assist. Players of Traore’s bravery, instinct and ingenuity deserve so much more than to have contributions such as that bracketed in such unsatisfactory terms.

That is not to discount statistical analysis, per se, but it should be part of a much wider picture of productivity. Traore’s critics will rightly point to his low return of goals this season. There is no escaping that. He frustrates, fanning the flames of discontent whenever that end-product falls short.

The problem Traore has – and it is the same problem predecessors from Diogo Jota right the way back to Robbie Dennison often had to deal with – is that he is noticed. There is no hiding place on the pitch for a player like Traore. He demands attention. So, when there are quiet spells and lean times in front of goal, questions over his work rate and productivity inevitably follow.

Traore is a hugely popular member of the first team squad. The outpouring of joy and emotion from his team-mates after his Fulham winner and from his manager at full-time crystalised this. It was a sight to warm the hearts of Wolves fans, although one laced with frustration that such a dramatic goal was struck in front of an empty Putney End when, in better times, the stand would have been a heaving throng of celebration from visiting supporters.

His infectious personality has endeared him to just about everyone at the club’s Compton Park training base. They know how much he applies himself to becoming the best he can be. There is a lovely quote from an interview we did back in December 2019, which sums up Traore’s devotion to his craft. “You can always be better,” he said. “I’m working every day. If I am the same Adama as yesterday, then it is one day I have lost.”

A team without Traore is a team which reduces its possibilities, narrows its scope. Maybe one day long into the future, if the club progresses beyond the levels it operates at now, there could be a time when it is competing at the very top of the Premier League. Maybe then, the conversation around Traore would be slightly different. Could he be accommodated in a team aiming to win the league?

But Wolves supporters are a long way from holding those conversations. Like most fans outside that exclusive band of genuine contenders, theirs is a different debate. Wolves’ history – any club’s history – has a cast of thousands, many of whom will be easily forgotten. Names, numbers, statistics. Traore’s will be a fleeting moment in among it all, but his light is one of the brightest. Which is why supporters should cherish every second Traore is one of theirs. His imagination. His imperfection. His phenomenon. Embrace it all.

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