At Barcelona, there have been so many great hopes for the academy. Even in this, the darkest of times, when success seems further away than at any point in their modern history, players like Gavi, Pedri and Ansu Fati are providing positivity. La Masia will always be their saviour and their trump card; that will never change.
Becoming a regular in the first team at Camp Nou isn’t the barometer for whether a player’s development has worked or not and there are plenty who have found their feet elsewhere. It is easy to pin hopes on specific prospects and say they will follow in the footsteps of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta but that is naturally unlikely to ever happen.
Even those who are expected to go the distance can be ruthlessly cut aside these days. Bojan Krkic is perhaps best remembered as a cult hero at Stoke City but, at the age of 17, emerging just a couple of years after Messi, with 900 youth goals to his name, the world waited expectantly.
In some ways, the same goes for Adama Traore. Even now, there will be those within Barcelona who will look at him with a tinge of sadness. He was the one from the 2014 generation who had all the tools to make it. There was pace, an ability to ghost past players, strength and immaculate close control.
As a teenager heading into a team on the brink of winning the treble at the time, there was a genuine feeling that, with the right coaching, Traore would become a superstar of the future. His game needed refining; end product was an issue, but there was no questioning his raw ability.
It is nearly eight years since he broke through and, frustratingly for all involved, despite some progress Traore has struggled to break free of his initial characterisation. He moved to Aston Villa in what appeared a rather surprising and risky decision in 2015, only to spend that season as a peripheral figure as they were relegated from the Premier League. Then came a move to newly-promoted Middlesbrough; under Aitor Karanka, Jose Mourinho’s former assistant at Real Madrid, they were quite an enticing proposition.
In Victor Valdés and Alvaro Negredo, Boro attracted some stellar names of Spanish football and Traore appeared the perfect compliment to them. He’d provide the spark in a structured unit which embodied Karanka’s obsession with defensive solidity. It was a formula that worked in the Championship and intermittently in the Premier League, too, but Traore flattered to deceive, exciting fans with his dribbles but never finding the right pass.
He continuously frustrated Karanka, who trusted him so little he only ever seemed to play him on the wing closest to the dugout in order to coach him through games. A difficult January window, in which backing waned for the manager, set the tone for the rest of the season. By March he was gone and two months later Boro were down.
Perhaps the biggest irony of the Traore story is what happened next. Just after Christmas, Tony Pulis — a rugged, old fashioned coach — took over from a supposedly innovative, flailing Garry Monk. There was an element of surprise in the fact that Traore had stayed in the first place but it was assumed that his background as a product of the most technical footballing school in the world would jar with Pulis’ more simplistic, direct ideals.
But instead, he worked with the winger and gave him the belief to become a leader by example. Traore was made into the team’s focal point and it became clear that the rigours of the Championship were toughening him up. His physique, now something of a selling point with him, emerged. In 2017/18, he scored five goals, but crucially, registered 10 assists, before following that season’s Championship winners Wolves back into the top flight.
Really, that season should have been the turning point but for large spells at Molineux, despite his propensity to excite and entertain, there is the same perception of Traore. He is now a fully-fledged Spain international and there will forever be talk of big things because he has added such strength to his dribbling, another way of separating himself from the rest.
At his best he can be unplayable. Defenders have even resorted to extreme measures of stopping him, forcing him to respond by greasing himself up with baby oil so he cannot be grabbed and pulled. But it doesn’t happen enough; he isn’t the decisive diamond he should be by now.
For all the growing intrigue and fleeting moments where it looks like it may all finally click into place, there is a sense of drift. Traore, at 25, is still linked with big moves. Manchester United, Liverpool and most recently Tottenham are said to have had a look — but nothing concrete has ever come from it. He is still inconsistent and still lacks precision like a Ferrari that can’t control its corners. The difference is that now fewer people believe he’ll ever be anything else.
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