The Character Actors of the Soccer World: An Adama Traoré Tribute
While contemporary soccer fans debate whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest player of all time (the answer: both!), and while older fans debate whether Pelé or Diego Maradona is the greatest player of all time, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the next level of current players beneath the Messi/Ronaldo/Virgil van Dyke stratosphere. Think of these players as the character actors of the soccer world. And just like every movie is vastly improved by the addition of a Jeffrey Wright, Kevin Pollak or Paul Giamatti, so are teams (and fans) greatly enriched by these players.
N’Golo Kanté: Arguably the second-best player (behind Kylian Mbappé) on the 2018 World Cup-winning France national team. One can’t call Kanté unheralded anymore, as he has been getting his due for a few years now. The sheer brilliance of his defensive skills in the back of the midfield (and increasing offensive skills in his ever-expanding role at Chelsea) are too prodigious to ignore. Still, to fully appreciate his skill set you really have to watch the games (and maybe peak at the interception and tackling statistics).
Raheem Sterling: Possessing an amazing ability to maneuver in tight spaces, Sterling has really improved his finishing and is now lethal on attack. He gets bonus points for speaking out against the racism in the petty, gossipy British media and serving as an unofficial statesman for black players facing racism in global soccer.
Jadon Sancho: Think Neymar but without the ridiculous flopping. To be fair, Sancho doesn’t have Neymar’s top-end speed or his flair for making the brilliant pass. (Not yet anyway.) But his fearlessness in attack and his dribbling skills are enjoyable to watch and sometimes are just what his Borussia Dortmund team need to break a game open in the late stages.
Olivier Giroud: Giroud is a pretty good striker who basically can’t score. Weird, huh? He is great at hold-up play, at setting up his teammates, and at tracking back on defense. But the number one task of a striker is put the ball in the back of the net and Giroud is just not good at this anymore. Which may be okay for a striker playing in a weekend pick-up game (like me), but not for clubs with Champions League aspirations.
David Luiz: Like Giroud, David Luiz is a player who is great at everything but his actual job description. He is phenomenal in his passing, control, and leading the offense from the back, but his defensive work leaves a lot to be desired. Which is a problem, since he is a center back. If he is paired with another center back, one with a strong defensive presence, he can be a lethal attacking presence from the back. But if David Luiz is your last line of defense… Yikes!
Adama Traoré: A Force of Nature
This brings me to the main event and the real point of this article. If you are the kind of occasional soccer fan who only watches Major League Soccer and international fixtures, you owe it to yourself to see Adama Traoré immediately. (Go ahead and YouTube him. I’ll wait.) Here’s a hint: he is the player who looks like J.J. Watt or Aaron Donald (for the uninitiated, these are the two best NFL defensive linemen) suddenly acquired an Olympic sprinter’s speed and the skills of an elite soccer player. The way Traoré marries his strength, speed and skills can be awe-inspiring as times. But given that he is far from a finished product and is still figuring out how to consistently harness his abilities (he is only 23 years old), there is still an uneven and unpredictable nature to his game that I would argue makes him even more exciting to watch.
Traoré was born and raised in Barcelona and came up in Barcelona’s academy playing the Barcelona way. While he had the speed and skill during his Barcelona days, during the last few years he has visibly improved his musculature (this qualifies as an understatement, BTW) and added explosiveness and power to his game. While Traoré is by no means a finished product, his final touch (i.e., the shot on target or pass to a teammate streaking towards the goal) has improved dramatically and his overall game keeps improving. This has been aided by the fact that at Wolverhampton his manager, Nuno Espírito Santo, has finally assigned him to just one position, right winger, whereas in previous years he was assigned to multiple positions all over the field.
If you have yet to see Adama Traoré play, do yourself a favor and check out Wolverhampton’s next game. Even if, or rather especially if, you are not a soccer fan.
Getting back to the original analogy of the article, what character is Traore comparable with? If a match is stagnant, Traoré is the potentially unpredictable/explosive element that can break the game wide open. Think of him as the Nicolas Cage/Steve Buscemi/Javier Bardem character that takes your movie in a new, intense direction. For hip hop fans, think of Traoré as the 1990s version of Busta Rhymes guest starring on the track.
But I’m open to your ideas as to what intense, game-breaking character Traoré is analogous with.