Those watching the highlights from Wolves’ defeat to Leicester City on the opening weekend of the Premier League season are likely to reach a familiar conclusion regarding Adama Traore’s lack of end product. He missed. Jamie Vardy scored. Wolves lost.
Those are the bald facts but here is another. Never before had Traore had six shots in a Premier League game. This was a very different performance to the 140 that had preceded it in this competition. New Wolves boss Bruno Lage has new plans for him.
His expected-goals total of 0.81 for this game was higher than in any under predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo, even the memorable win at Manchester City in which he scored twice.
The figure was higher than the entire Leicester team combined. Higher even than Bruno Fernandes’ in scoring a hat-trick for Manchester United against Leeds earlier in the same day.
The one-on-one chance that Traore directed wide just before Vardy won the game might be seen as proof that he does not possess the qualities required to become a goalscorer. But the number of chances could also suggest that the goals will soon come in this tweaked role.
Much of the criticism of Traore’s end product has long been misguided. In the 2019/20 season, he ranked seventh in the Premier League for assists, contributing nine of them, his partnership with Raul Jimenez being a feature of Wolves’ game.
That number dipped last season in Jimenez’s absence following a serious head injury but it was the lack of end product from his replacements rather than Traore that was the issue. He still ranked fifth in the Premier League for chances created from open play.
His underwhelming scoring record is trickier to defend in terms of the pure numbers. Seven goals in 141 Premier League career appearances tells its own tale – but not the full one given his role under Nuno. Traore had largely been restricted to wide areas.
Playing from the right wing, cutting inside was rarely his job. The wing-backs could not overlap Traore – it is just about impossible – so they drifted inside, Matt Doherty doing so to great effect. His responsibility has been to stay wide, stretch play and put in crosses.
There have been exceptions. The aforementioned win at City when he was moved to a central role late on. The spell playing from the left last season when he cut inside against Leeds to crash a shot against the bar before ricocheting off Illan Meslier for the winner.
But this was different. Traore was nominally on the left but he was picking up space in the pockets behind the Leicester defence, an area of the pitch that supporters are not used to seeing him occupy. As Lage explained afterwards, that was the game plan.
“Our plan was to bring our midfielders near to our centre-backs so that the opposition midfielders would come, then find the space between the lines, then create our chances,” said Lage. “In the transition, we had a good situation with Adama.”
Lage had noted that “if you play more inside of them, you will find the spaces and create the chances” and Traore’s clear-cut opportunity in the first half was the perfect example of that. Making the run from out to in put him through on Kasper Schmeichel’s goal.
Freeze the frame as Joao Moutinho nudges the ball between the Leicester centre-backs and it is obvious why Traore is such a weapon – both have a head-start on him. It is not enough. Traore’s pace creates chances that do not exist for others.
But will he ever find the finish?
Lage sounded optimistic afterwards, focusing on improving this aspect of his game. “Our way to work is that, to work as a team, a collective, but also to improve the skills they have,” he explained. “It is not just about technique, it is tactical things. They must improve.
“Adama has his abilities. He has to improve a lot of things and, for sure, the shooting. He could have scored two or three goals today and he created a lot of chances. Adama is a top player, a top man, he wants to improve. We will work to improve that skill. He needs to do.”
The signs are that he will have those opportunities should he stay at Wolves beyond this transfer window. Six shots for a player who did not have more than three in a game in any of his 37 Premier League appearances last season is a fundamental change to his role.
Will it enable him to add the dimension that had been lacking or is Lage asking him to do things that do not suit his skill-set? If Traore stays, the success of the plan could not only define Wolves’ season but also the player’s own career trajectory from here on in.
After all, as Lage alluded to afterwards, if Traore does become more comfortable in his finishing, he can become a different player entirely. “If he scored those chances he would not be at Wolves, he would be at a top team.” It should be fun finding out.