Adama Traore has been linked with a January move to Tottenham from Wolves, with interest reigniting following summer speculation.
The 25-year-old has cultivated a reputation in English football as a take-on expert, a full-back’s worst nightmare who is able to show any defender a clean pair of heels, and the stats would back him up favourably. He has averaged nearly seven completed dribbles per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season (6.96, to be exact). As you can imagine, that’s more than anyone else in Europe’s top five leagues.
Despite this, the Wolves winger has lost his status as an automatic starter at the Molineux. Only three of his last 10 league appearances have been from the off. That Traore is yet to renew his contract, though, is not influencing his selection, according to manager Bruno Lage. But it probably doesn’t help that he and the club are at an impasse.
Naturally so, the links away from the Midlands have started to gain traction, with Spurs still the prime destination for Traore. That may seem strange at first, given that Harry Kane and Heung-min Son are fairly immovable from the Spurs starting XI, and Lucas Moura is a supremely Antonio Conte-style player who, this season alone, is producing significantly more of those line-breaking dribbles that are synonymous with Traore.
However, a report from The Times suggests Conte sees Traore as someone who could feasibly play as a wing-back, making sense of the recent speculation. Right wing-back is the one area of the Spurs squad (besides centre-back) where there are genuine depth issues.
Sure, Emerson Royal has proven himself a capable starter in the position, but he’s also the only choice. Matt Doherty behind him looks a shadow of the player that dominated from wing-back under Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves (and his inability to revive himself under Nuno’s leadership at Spurs speaks volumes as to how far he has fallen).
So, would Wolves be willing to sell? Can Spurs afford to sign Traore? Asked about a possible departure, along with Manchester United-linked Ruben Neves, Lage’s response was interesting.
“When you want to make the next step and you sell your best players, the next step never happens,” said the Portuguese coach, adding: “but in modern football, if a big transfer appears, like it did when I was at Benfica — two years ago a team came and paid 120m euros for one player — you cannot say no.”
That isn’t to say Lage is demanding £100m for Traore, like the fee Atletico Madrid paid for Joao Felix in 2019. But the £20m Spurs are reportedly planning seems like a low-ball; Wolves paid £18m for him as a newly-promoted team four years ago.
Either way, you’d imagine Daniel Levy would never have been able to snag Conte without guaranteeing that he would have available funds to invest in new talent.
Can Adama Traore play wing-back?
So, in a nutshell, Spurs want to sign top-level European football’s most productive dribbler for £20m and let Conte convert him to a wing-back.
Or, more accurately, convert him to play at wing-back regularly, because Traore played RWB in the injury-enforced absence of Matt Doherty two seasons back, and also more recently. All told, he has spent just over 1,000 minutes of league football at wing-back since joining Wolves.
But if anything, Traore’s experience with the wing-back job serves as evidence for the case against Conte being able to pull this off.
Espirito Santo’s Traore-to-wing-back-project started well. “The way he took the team up, the way he created, the way he unbalanced the opponents, he can do all this and other things” Nuno told reporters after a strong display in a 2019/20 Europa League play-off against Torino.
“But he has to improve a lot. This time he was stable in defence, covering his centre-back, winning balls in the air. We’re building a player.”
But then Doherty returned from injury and the project was never aggressively pursued. The consensus among Wolves fans seem to support Nuno’s eventual decision.
‘He’s played at wing back before for Wolves. It didn’t end well,’ wrote one Wolves-supporting Reddit user.
‘There’s a reason why Nuno, who was an expert at adapting players to new positions at Wolves, very quickly abandoned the Traore wing-back experiment,’ wrote another.
Even in this relatively possession-averse Wolves team, Traore’s defensive numbers don’t stand up to his attacking counterparts, such as left-sided winger Francisco Trincao. His 0.69 tackles per 90 minutes is the worst of any outfield Wolves player in the Premier League this season.
It is a trend dating back to his days at Middlesbrough, where Tony Pulis gave him “special treatment” and “licence to be a bit looser.”
“The balance of the team was all about getting Adama wide in one-on-one positions as much as possible when we had the ball – training sessions were all about getting the ball to Adama as quickly as we possibly can,” the former Boro manager explained to Sky Sports.
Because Traore really is ridiculous when dribbling. “The speed of Traore is actually undefendable in moments,” Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp once said. Since he joined Wolves, only Leo Messi has completed more take-ons than Traore’s mammoth 482 across all of Europe’s top five leagues. And when Messi is first place, second ain’t half bad.
What does a Conte wing-back look like?
Many ask why Spurs don’t sign a ‘natural’ wing-back or even a full-back. Well, because a.) back-three systems are relatively niche in elite football so wing-backs are more rare and b.) Conte converts wingers to wing-backs more often than not.
Conte’s wing-back whisperer credentials stem, of course, from his work with Victor Moses. But look at the list of those he has coached more recently: Antonio Candreva (ex-winger), Cristiano Biraghi, Achraf Hakimi (originally a winger), Ashley Young (ex-winger), Ivan Perisic (ex-forward).
“I know very well that this is a role where you expend a lot of energy,” Conte said in early January while stressing the importance of wing-backs in his system.
“You become a striker, a winger when we are in possession, and then a right-back or a left-back when we are without the ball.”
Traore has been accused of lacking defensive diligence, of failing to track back. But for players who commit, Conte is in his element, stripping away this kind of mental or physiological barrier (maybe even more so than when drilling a back-three).
In terms of raw attributes, what makes Traore “undefendable” according to Klopp could actually make him unattackable. Speed can bail defenders out of dangerous situations, too, and Olympic gold medallist Darren Campbell, who coached Traore’s sprinting technique at Boro, once said of the Catalan: “His 80 per cent was still faster than everyone else in the league.”
So if the question is “can Adama Traore play wing-back?”, the answer is possibly disappointing… maybe? Just how much would the move to wing-back neuter the dribbling skill that made Traore so sublime in the first place remains to be seen. And given Nuno’s past attempts, this signing would come with the obvious risk that it just won’t work.
But it’s hard to think of many match-ups that promise as much entertainment as Adama and Antonio. His end-product is the most obviously urgent area of improvement but left-backs going up against Spurs would live in fear of becoming isolated in one-v-ones with Conte’s latest wing-back project.
Traore is such a miraculous and unique talent, so isn’t it worth the risk?