Photo: Clive Mason (Getty)

The best, most unstoppable dribbler in world soccer will be playing in the Premier League this season. Though it’s probably not the player you think.

Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid this summer, but rather than rejoin the league where he made his name, he has taken his meticulously gelled hair to the ancestral home of product-soused coifs by signing with Juventus in Italy’s Serie A. No, Manchester City didn’t deposit a medium-sized country’s GDP’s worth of cash into Barcelona’s bank account in exchange for Lionel Messi overnight, nor did Manchester United send a team of secret operatives to Paris to smuggle Neymar away from PSG. And while he deserves a place on any shortlist of the most phenomenal dribblers on the planet, we’re not talking about Eden Hazard, either.

The sport’s most terrifying man running with the ball at his feet isn’t any of those players, nor any of the other star attacking names—Salah, Sterling, Sánchez—who call the Premier League home. The best dribbler in the world is Spanish winger Adama Traoré, and he’s just joined Wolverhampton Wanderers this summer, and he’s absolutely going to tear the Premier League up.

You might be a little skeptical that a player you very possibly have never heard of is the best in the world at such a core aspect of soccer like dribbling, and your skepticism would make sense. Traoré isn’t exactly well known, and if he has anything resembling a commonly accepted reputation, it’s a fairly bad one.

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Once the jewel of La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy that produced arguably the best dribbler to ever live, Lionel Messi, Adama has struggled for the bulk of his still young career to make good on his undeniable talent. As a 19-year-old who couldn’t foresee a place for himself in the first team of his boyhood club, Traoré left Barça in the summer of 2015. At that time he made a somewhat puzzling choice to join Aston Villa. Villa, then in the EPL, were in a league where Adama’s specific gifts—running with the ball into wide open spaces—would seem to fit like a glove, but weren’t exactly the sort of team known for improving the attacking repertoire of a young player with his limitations—namely, Traoré’s inability to do literally anything else with the ball other than run with it.

These concerns about Traoré’s career decisions were proven well-founded. He only lasted a season with Villa. He got almost no playing time and was sold to fellow Premier League outfit Middlesbrough just a year after becoming a Villan. His Middlesbrough tenure started better, in the sense that he at least saw the pitch more often, but what he did when out there in the field gave him a strange reputation.

Anyone who watched Traoré play during his first season with Boro could tell that he was a menace when on the run. He was already one of if not the single fastest player in the entire league, and he combined that Olympian speed with an agility and delicate touch and strength and nose for open space that made him impossible for defenses to contain. Though he only made 16 starts in the 2016-17 EPL season, appearing in another 11 matches from off the bench, Adama’s 8 completed dribbles per 90 minutes was the highest rate in the entire league for players who saw significant playing time. If this then-20-year-old dribbling wizard had the ball between his legs, you could almost guarantee he was going to wreck the defense by running past multiple dudes.

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But there was the problem. As sure as you were that Traoré could torch any number of opponents after picking up the ball, you could be equally sure that he wasn’t going to do anything useful once he ran out of room to run into. The most common sight during the bulk of his Middlesbrough stint was of Adama receiving the ball, putting his head down, blazing past a couple defenders, finally looking up some 30 yards later, realizing all that mazy dribbling hadn’t led him anywhere particularly threatening, and blindly hoofing in a cross that soared way over his teammates heads. His lack of any end product or creative ability or even harmless shooting from distance had him looking like a comedic exaggeration of a one-trick pony. Though he racked up impressive dribbling stats that season, Traoré scored zero goals, nabbed exactly one assist, and averaged less than a single shot or key pass (defined as a pass that directly leads to a shot) per game. Adama looked more like a player who might not be playing high-level soccer in four years than a potential superstar. It was a bizarre combination: world-elite dribbling mixed with almost amateur-level skill everywhere else.

It was no surprise when the anemic Boro attack Adama was part of got the team relegated that year. The first half of the 2017-18 season in the Championship looked like it would continue on the same, bizarrely troubling path as the prior year for the Spaniard. Nobody in the Championship could stop Adama from dribbling, but they didn’t even have to stop him from scoring or creating a goal after he’d dribbled past the whole defense because he sucked so bad at the rest of the game. For the early part of the season, Traoré wasn’t getting consistent playing time and it was hard to argue with the manager’s choice to keep him on the bench.

It wasn’t until the second half of the season that Traoré exploded. Oddly enough, it was the stewardship of that famously defensive manager Tony Pulis that finally unlocked Traoré’s latent creative abilities. Pulis took over at Boro the day after Christmas of 2017 and immediately placed his trust in the young winger. With the manager’s confidence and the first steady diet of starting appearances in his post-Barça life, Traoré at last proved that he could do a little something with the ball after beating his man off the dribble.

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Adama ended the season with five goals and ten assists and was far and away Middlesbrough’s best player. All five of those goals and eight of the assists came in the 2018 portion of the season. And as impressive, though not awe-inspiring, as those goal contributions were for a player of his age, it was the dribbling stats his minutes on the pitch allowed him to gobble up that were truly jaw-dropping.

A few stats to hopefully convince you that a 22-year-old player who’s spent all of his career either in the English Championship or trying and failing to avoid relegation to the English Championship is worth paying attention to: During the 2017-18 season, Adama amassed 243 total dribbles in league play. The next highest dribbler in the Championship, Luke Freeman, completed 135 dribbles. And Freeman played almost twice as many minutes as Traoré. Even more stark than his total dribble numbers are his averages. Per 90 minutes, Adama successfully executed an average of 9.6 dribbles. That’s an average of three entire dribbles more than the next player who played at least a couple hundred minutes. If we restrict it to players who were on the pitch for at least 1,000 minutes, Traoré’s 9.6 is more than five dribbles up on Jeremie Boga’s 4.6 average.

And it’s not only in the Championship where Adama’s stats blow everyone else out of the water. Check out this visualization of Adama’s dribbling figures over the past two seasons when compared to the numbers of players in the best European leagues:

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Here’s another graphic comparing last season’s dribbling stats in a bunch of Europe’s best leagues with Adama’s numbers:

You should click the image to see a bigger version, but just so you know that little red star all by itself way up at the top is Adama. The stats are gobsmacking.

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Of course, there are caveats to all of this. The Championship doesn’t compare in quality to Ligue 1 and La Liga and the Premier League, so putting the stats Traoré accumulated down there up against Messi’s and Neymar’s and Hazard’s stats isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, Championship defenses are pretty damn good, and it’s not like anyone could stop him when he was in the Prem the year before, as shown in his eye-popping averages there. His shockingly efficient dribble success rate of 80 percent last season in England’s second tier is only about five points higher than it was the year before in the top division, so there’s good reason to believe that no matter who you put in front of Adama, he’s just going to blow by them regardless. With Adama’s speed, balance, strength, tenacity, technique, and pitch vision, he’s a safe bet to be nearly as unstoppable a dribbling force in a big Champions League match against Juventus or Benfica as he demonstrated himself to be in the Championship against Norwich and Bristol City.

Of course, with soccer having such a broad spectrum of dribbling styles, it’s hard to crown any one player the undisputed king of the dribble. Traoré is a power dribbler, more Gareth Bale than Lionel Messi. He requires lots of space. When he’s running with the ball, it looks like he sizes up the pitch and the positions of all his opponents, spots an open area of grass a few yards in front of him, knocks the ball into that space, and bets that he can outrace everyone else there before he takes a touch and repeats the process.

Adama can be effective when the space is cramped and defenders are closing in on him, but it’s less because of his close control than his ability to thump the ball over to where there’s more room and muscle his way there before anyone can kick the ball away. He’s either sprinting full bore with long touches, moving slowly while taking tiny little touches, or holding his position and closely controlling the ball to shield off physical challenges from nearby defenders until he finds a window to explode into. Adama’s style is great, and it’s an especially great fit for a mid-to-lower-table club in England. It wouldn’t be as effective against deep defenses that don’t afford him free run into acres of space behind them, meaning he probably wouldn’t thrive in super compact corridors the way Neymar does.

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Even though he’s at the very least amongst the best dribblers currently doing it, the still limited state of the rest of his game keeps him from being a legitimately great all around player. He’s not an awful finisher but he hasn’t yet shown much scoring drive so far in his top-level career, and he doesn’t have great ball-striking technique. He can see cutting passes and is often in position to play them thanks to his dribbling, but he’s not consistent enough at pinging the ball out to a teammate at the right moment or with the right weight. He is a good crosser, even if he sometimes relies too much on smashing the ball so hard that it flies over the players in good scoring position and finds a opposite-side teammate who’s too far from the goal to make much happen. At this stage in his career he’s still pretty much a kick-and-rush-and-cross player, though in light of the progress he made just over the past year, you could definitely see him developing into a truly elite forward.

And anyway, regardless of his limitations, he still has one skill that can stand up to any other player in the most popular sport in the world. Adama might not be able to run at close to full speed with the ball never straying more than a few inches away from his foot the way Messi can, and he might not be able to completely erase an entire defense with a single pass the way Neymar can, and he might not be able to fly down the pitch and smash the ball into the net with regularity the way Kylian Mbappé can, but when he has the ball, Adama can run faster and move with even more elusiveness than any one of them. To be the best in the world at anything, let alone something so valuable and visually striking and flat-out cool as dribbling, is a special feat in itself. To do so at the tender age of 22 makes it even crazier.

Traoré has more than enough time to worry about continuing to improve in the other facets of the game as he develops into a fully realized player in the future. For now, he should be proud to know he’s the best dribbler on the planet, and should be eager to prove that fact once again once the season kicks off.