Barcelona youth product Adama Traoré burst onto the scene in 2016/17 by doing one thing and doing it well.
In a largely turgid Middlesbrough side, the young Catalan, who was schooled at Barcelona, sped past opponents like there was no tomorrow, but there wasn’t much in the way of end product. Between shots he took himself and those he set up, Traoré produced just 1.67 shots per 90 minutes.
According to Football Whispers' persona radars, around 67 per cent of his game was made up of dribbling.
Manager at the time Aitor Karanka was so concerned about this unrefined quality that he confessed to moving the winger at half-time so that he was always playing on the flank closest to the dug-out.
“I hope that one day, he can play alone but at the moment he needs guidance,” Karanka said last February.
“But he needs less than he did a month ago because he is intelligent and is learning.”
And clearly those improvments have not gone unnoticed in the goldfish bowl that is the North East with reports claiming Traoré is now a Newcastle transfer target.
So what would Rafa Benítez be getting for the £15million price tag mooted?
The new Adama Traoré
It seems that Traoré has carried on learning under Tony Pulis, Middlesbrough manager since December.
“Every couple of days he’s working with me, telling me how I need to move, with the ball or without it, where to be on the pitch,” Traoré said in March.
“I’m listening. It’s helping me get goals and assists,” Traoré’s first goal for Middlesbrough came in January, after 18 months at the club.
“He’s been a big influence on me since he came and I wanted to say thank you. The manager has told me I have a lot of quality. I can learn.”
Don’t be fooled though, dribbling is still the main part of the winger’s game. His persona radar for 2017/18 is very similar to the one from last season.
However, there has been an increase in end product. His shot contribution has gone up from 1.67 to 3.14 per 90, driven mainly by a big boost in the number of chances he’s taking himself. They’ve almost trebled, from 0.69 to 1.96 per 90.
This isn’t to say that this increase is a sign of fewer wasted dribbles. For one, these shots could be coming at any time during games, not necessarily after Traoré’s run the length of the pitch.
For another, he’s dribbling more this season.
Traoré’s successful take-ons per 90 has gone up from 7.89 to 9.72, keeping him at the top of the list for Europe’s top dribbler. The next closest in any of the top or middle tier European leagues is Neymar, who’s been beating a man 7.14 times per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this season.
Bang for your buck
Traoré might be making an extra two take-ons per game, but the rise in his shot contribution means that Middlesbrough are also getting more end product for each dribble. Last season, the winger offered 4.7 take-ons for every shot or shot assisted; this campaign that figure was 3.1.
Not that a dribble without a shot or a key pass at the end of it is necessarily a bad thing. The amount of territory that Traoré is able to give Middlesbrough with the ball at his feet must be a truly immense number.
He is a reliable attacking outlet, a man who the team can give the ball to in the knowledge that he will move the side 20, 30 or 40 yards up the pitch.
A lack of end product always feels frustrating, like an opportunity missed. But, slowly, Traoré is adding this to his game. If he keeps building on it, he could be unstoppable.