How Tony Pulis Helped Transform Middlesbrough’s Adama Traoré

How Tony Pulis Helped Transform Middlesbrough’s Adama Traoré
Feb 16, 2018

Featured Middlesborough

Until recently, Adama Traoré was the most frustrating figure Boro fans saw on a match-day. He was simultaneously the best and worst player on the pitch. His dribbling was always sensational, like a hurricane leaving defenders in a wreckage behind, but too often moves were spoiled by poor decision making and a weak final ball.

After 18 months of indulging his unique talent, it just didn’t seem possible for him to fit in at Boro. But sometimes fate delivers a cosmic twist that completely alters the universe you thought you understood. On Boxing Day 2017 something magical happened in the career of Adama Traoré that transformed him into one of the most exciting and productive players in the Championship. Tony Pulis was appointed manager of Middlesbrough Football Club.

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Wait. What? Pulis? The same Tony Pulis who epitomizes the avoid-defeat at all costs philosophy? The man who symbolizes the existential crises of so many modern football fans who watch their team choose survival at the expense of entertainment? Tony ‘Pulisball’ Pulis? Is this really the man who has created a world where Adama Traoré can finally flourish?

Traoré’s career trajectory to this point has been as confounding as one of his mazy dribbles. He came through the La Masia development system in Barcelona and left with big expectations. We can thank Tim Sherwood for bringing him to England signing the Spaniard for Aston Villa in the Summer of 2015. Sherwood immediately declared Traoré a hybrid of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Unsurprisingly, Traoré failed to live up to the hype. Villa were a basket-case that season, Sherwood lasted until October, and Villa would go through another three managers that season before finishing bottom. When Aitor Karanka signed him for newly promoted Boro it looked like a good fit, but Boro were almost as dysfunctional as Villa and another relegation followed. Since arriving in England he was always micro-managed, sometimes showing glimpses of the sublime, but was often frantic and confused.

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A new hope on Teesside arrived in the shape of Garry Monk. Monk came with bright and modern ideas, surely this exciting new manager was the man to get the best out of Traoré. Unfortunately, the Monk era lasted half a season as he struggled to integrate his Brendan Rogers-lite ‘Tiki-taka’ style. Most of the time the players looked like they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing on the pitch and Traoré was even more erratic.

And then Tony Pulis arrived at the Riverside on Boxing Day wearing his new Christmas scarf, and everyone assumed that Traoré’s Boro career was over. He’s just not a Pulis player, not consistent enough. Too flashy. Shame it never worked out, maybe Boro could blag West Ham to fork out £10 million for him in January.

The thing is we forgot that Pulis had about two decades more experience than all of Traoré’s previous managers put together. Say what you want about Pulis, he knows a thing or two about football.

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The first thing Pulis did was a simple tactical shift. Garry Monk liked to play attacking full-backs, and in the summer bought wing-back Cyrus Christie. Christie was excellent, particularly going forward, but if Traoré was playing in front of him it usually meant Boro were left more exposed than Babestation on a Friday night. When Pulis came in, out went Christie and in came Ryan Shotton. Ryan Shotton is the Yin to Traoré’s Yang. If Traoré is a ferocious force of nature, Shotton is the zen, tranquil presence behind.

Calm and collected, with his dreadlocks and beard he plays the football like it’s a game of hacky-sack while he’s taking a break from his shift as a barista at an organic coffee shop. He has helped restore Boro’s solid defence which was alarmingly fragile under Monk. With Shotton behind him, it has released Traoré from having to provide critical cover at the back. The combo of Shotton and Traoré on the right has been formidable.

The tactical shift took pressure off Traoré, and Pulis injected confidence into the player. Pulis has admitted that if he had any hair left Traoré would soon see it fall out. But unlike previous managers, Pulis has set Traoré free rather than tried to reign him in. And the results have been extraordinary.

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Traoré’s first appearance under Pulis was off the bench against Villa. He immediately charged at the defence and won a free-kick in a dangerous area. He started the next game away at Preston and won a free-kick within 5 minutes which Boro scored from (suddenly he seems to look a useful player for Pulis, a manager whose teams typically scores so many from set-pieces. A player like Traoré, where the only way to stop him is usually to foul him, is invaluable to Pulis). He crossed for the winner at Preston, and then finally scored his first goal for Boro away at QPR. Last Saturday against Reading he scored a brace in a 2-1 win.

At times Reading triple-marked him but he still forced his way through. The second goal was a great finish, but his first was perhaps the most pleasing. Traoré often favours running to the byline keeping it on his right-side, but this time he cut inside and a hit a bullet of a shot with his left-foot. The keeper probably should have saved it, but watching him cut inside added another dimension to Traoré’s threat. The left-backs for Boro’s remaining 15 opponents have sleepless nights ahead.

They are truly football’s odd couple, but since Pulis arrived Traoré has been pretty much unstoppable. Pulis told him to have fun which has had a liberating effect. The way he dribbles past defenders is like watching a cartoon superhero swatting bad guys away. The ball remains glued to his feet like a FIFA player. He’s built and runs like an NFL running back, shifting his body while out-muscling opponents. How he is consistently able to maintain his balance, at top speed, with the ball at his feet is genuinely mind-blowing.

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As modern-day fans, we love to look at stats and analytics, create lists and look at trends to give us an understanding of the game. Traoré is like a hammer through the computer screen.  He is playing a different a game to the rest. He’s like a cricketer playing 20-20 in a Test Match.

Previous managers tried to force Traoré into the systems they created and then got frustrated because he didn’t have the football IQ to adapt. Pulis recognizes that Traoré must have an exceptional football IQ to do the things he does with the ball, and so arranged pieces around him so he could play without fear.

Boro probably won’t make the playoffs this season, but their best chance is to give Traoré the ball and let him run. In the summer Pulis can decide what to do after offers inevitably come flooding in. At only 22 maybe he could evolve into a genuine world-class player. We can deliberate over the areas of his game he needs to improve to fulfil his potential. But to do that seems to be missing the point of a player like Traoré. He defies traditional analysis because he is like nothing we’ve seen before. Instead, we should just admire the extraordinary things he is doing with the football here and now. Pulis told Traoré to have fun, so we might as well enjoy it.

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