Wolves 21/22 #3

After a strong showing in front of his ex-boss on Sunday, reports have linked Adama Traoré with a move to join Nuno Espírito Santo at Tottenham. It seems odd that someone would look at a squad containing Son Heung-min, Steven Bergwijn, Bryan Gil and Lucas Moura and think: “huh, we could use another wide player”, but reports suggest that’s the case.

Despite Spurs’ depth in wide positions, the link maybe shouldn’t come as too much of a shock given the uniqueness of Adama. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before, but his blend of dribbling ability and physical attributes can make him almost unstoppable. Question marks have always hung over his end product, but so has the nagging feeling he could be an incredible asset if a team looked to maximise his strengths.

Adama may have become a key player for Wolves in recent seasons, not only being a creative outlet but also a source of progression, but it’s questionable if Wolves have truly maximised his ability. He may have played a lot of crosses, but it’s rare for Wolves to flood the box and look to make the most of his ability to beat his man and put the ball into a good area. There’s no guarantee Nuno would do this with him at Spurs, considering it didn’t happen at Wolves. It may be a case that Harry Kane, should he stay, and Son are upgraded versions of Raúl Jiménez and Diogo Jota, forming a similar front three to Wolves’ in 2019/20. But this isn’t about how Adama could fit into Tottenham’s attack, or rather how Tottenham’s attack could become Adama; this is about what Wolves should do.

Adama’s strengths are unquestionable, but it’s questionable whether they have the same importance in Bruno Lage’s style — at least what we’ve seen of it so far. With Nuno, carrying the ball up the field was an important aspect of Wolves’ game. In Wolves’s season preview on StatsBomb, @chewingthecoca says:

Last season, Wolves were more reliant on carries to advance the ball forward inside the attacking half than any other Premier League side — 35% of their distance advanced was achieved via carries — and both Adama Traoré and Pedro Neto ranked in the league’s top 10 in terms of longer carries (>=10 metres) that led to shots, assists and key passes, as well as to direct entries or passes into the penalty area.

Under Bruno, Wolves may not be so reliant on the forwards carrying the ball from deep. There looks to be a greater emphasis on the midfield and wing-backs progressing the ball, allowing the forwards to receive the ball in between the lines. Some statistics from Adama’s opening two games support this shift. His carries into the final third are down from ~3 to 1.5 per 90 — but, throwing a spanner into the works, his passes are up from ~1.5 to 2.5. His touches and carries into the box have shot up significantly, with both almost tripling on previous season figures. The emphasis on getting him further forward is also highlighted in both his expected goal figures and received progressive passes. His two high-profile misses have helped contribute to an xG of 1.1, more than he managed in 2018/19 from 902 minutes. He’s also been the recipient of 10 progressive passes per 90. Previous seasons, backwards from last season, have seen him receive 5.1, 6.6 and 7.7.

All of this is to say, Adama may be less important in getting the ball forward from deep under Bruno. Instead, his production in the final third could take greater emphasis. The former is a strength of the winger’s, but there’s no evidence that the latter is. Could it be worth Wolves cashing in on Adama and reinvesting the money on someone with a track record for being more of a goal threat? With Adama still yet to sign a new deal, it may be an avenue Wolves have to explore.

Wolves would lose a player with a unique talent, and suggesting his game is only about running the ball up the pitch isn’t giving Adama his due. He’s shown he’s a danger in a more attacking set-up, with his ability to commit and beat players helping to create space and disrupt deeper defensive shapes. He’s still progressing the ball, but it’s from more advanced positions and moving into the box. The trouble is what he does once he’s moved into the box. Wolves losing some of Adama’s uniqueness for a more productive player could be a worthwhile one. The problem? There’s may not be lots out there.

In buying a forward to play in the front three who will offer more of a goal threat, Wolves are looking to replace Diogo Jota rather than Adama. Jota’s expected goal figures were around the same as Raúl Jiménez’s in the two seasons they played together. Adama has posted strong expected assists figures in the past, but getting on the end of chances has never been his job.

This piece won’t be an in-depth look at players but rather a quick dip into the data to see what options Wolves could have. Looking at data on WyScout, Diogo Jota averaged 0.31 xG per 90 in his debut Premier League season and 0.42 in his second. Looking at the last three seasons in the top five leagues, plus the Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese and Scottish leagues, and the Championship and Ligue 2, I set the following criteria:

  • More than 1800 minutes played — it may be excessive, but Wolves want someone to start. Having someone who’s performed consistently in more minutes feels beneficial.
  • They’ve played on the left side of attack. Wolves have Pedro Neto to come back and Francisco Trincão on the right. The assumption is Bruno wants a right-footed player on the left to cut inside.
  • Age is less than or equal to 25-years-old. It’s the same age as Adama, plus the Fosun model is reportedly to buy younger and increase value.
  • Their market value is less than €45m and more than €3m. Wolves reportedly have to sell before they buy, making it hard to imagine they’d even invest all of the Adama fee into a replacement.
  • Non-penalty xG is greater than or equal to 0.30 per 90. This is what will whittle down the numbers. It’s only an arbitrary figure and doesn’t feel like good practice, but this is just a quick glimpse at some names.

The above filter returns sixteen players. Only one player meets the criteria for all three seasons: new Brentford signing Yoane Wissa. Three players had two seasons meeting the criteria. The first was Diogo Jota in his final two seasons at Wolves. The other two were Leicester’s Harvey Barnes and Gladbach’s Marcus Thuram. The bad news for Wolves is none of the realistic players have repeated their feats.

Removing those four leaves twelve players who fit the criteria, but they’ve only done it in one season. Then, from those twelve, the following players are unrealistic:

  • Steven Bergwijn. He met the criteria in 2018/19 playing for PSV but, unless Spurs are desperate for Adama and are open to a swap, it’s not going to happen.
  • Saïd Benrahma. He met the criteria playing for Brentford in 2019/20, but there’s no chance of a deal now.
  • Daniel James. He met the criteria for Swansea in 2018/19. Maybe not that unrealistic if United wanted to recoup money after signing Jadon Sancho, but it’s a concern he hasn’t put up strong expected figures for United
  • Fashion Sakala. He met the criteria playing for KV Oostende last season, but has just signed for Rangers.
  • Carlos. He met the criteria playing for Santa Clara last season but has moved to Shabab.

From the seven remaining names, Nice’s Amine Gouiri and Ajax’s David Neres both teeter on the edge of realism. They feel much closer to unrealistic but perhaps shouldn’t be completely ruled out. Neres is also left-footed and has operated more on the right, which probably rules him out.

The five remaining names are Noa Lang (22-years-old, Club Brugge), Dodi Lukebakio (23-years-old, Hertha BSC), Théo Bongonda (25-years-old, Genk), Oussama Idrissi (25-years-old, Sevilla) and Yakou Méïté (25-years-old, Reading).

If we’re sticking to the strict criteria, we can drop two more names. Lukabakio is left-footed and Méïté spent most matches centrally, it’s just a couple of appearances on the left that allow him to slip through the filter. That leaves us with Lang, Bongonda and Idrissi. From the three, Lang looks the most promising.

Initially loaned to Brugge from Ajax, the move was made permanent in the summer. That should rule it out, but he’s recently had lots of links with Leeds for ~£20m, suggesting he’s a realistic target for Wolves too. Not only is he the youngest of the three names left, but he’s also the most productive. With 0.45 non-penalty xG and 0.30 xA per 90, he had the best production than any of the players in the original sixteen. His dribbling numbers are strong, but not Adama strong, yet his 3.75 progressive runs per 90 wasn’t too far behind Adama’s 5.38 last season. Considering the added xG contribution and 6.09 touches in the box per 90, compared to Adama’s 2.68, it may be a trade-off worth considering.

I can’t attest to seeing much of Lang, but what I have seen looks impressive. It’s also the profile of player you’d think Wolves might want to explore, given his age, data and the league he’s playing in. The risk comes from whether his impressive figures will follow him into a stronger league for a less dominant side. Club Brugge won the title ten points clear of Genk and had the strongest xG figures last season.

Reports have also linked Wolves with Gonçalo Guedes as an option to bolster their frontline. Given Guedes is represented by a certain Portuguese agent, the links aren’t too surprising, but he represents an interesting choice. He’s a player that’s had a lot of hype, particularly going into the 2018 World Cup, but hasn’t done much to live up to it. He’s had some injuries, been managed by a defensive-minded manager and seen Valencia slide down the table, which could all affect his numbers, but his numbers have never been great.

In the last three seasons, using WyScout data, Guedes hasn’t had one season better than any of Adama’s for non-penalty xG + xA or touches in the box. Wolves would be taking the same risk with Guedes as with Adama — hoping a player with little history of generating xG would be able to ‘scale up’ in Wolves’ set-up. It’s not to say it can’t happen, but there is risk involved.

If Wolves keep Adama, they run two risks. The first risk is hoping Adama ups his expected goal contribution and starts scoring, something he hasn’t done before. The early signs are encouraging for activity, as he’s generated shots and got on the end of chances, but he hasn’t made the most of his opportunities — although it’s worth pointing out we’re only two matches into the season.

Off the pitch, Adama is entering the last two years of his deal. He was reportedly ready to sign in May, but that changed when Nuno left. If Wolves keep him this season but can’t get him to sign a new deal, they run the risk of having to sell him for a cut-price in the final year of his contract.

The trouble for Wolves is who comes in to replace him. Someone like Lang is an exciting prospect, but there’s risk involved in how his figures would translate to the Premier League, even more so if he’s to make an immediate impact. Someone like Guedes represents the same risk as Adama. Wolves would need a player to start adding more xG production to their game, but they’d also lose the uniqueness of Adama’s strengths. Could it be worth banking on Adama improving, rather than someone with similar figures, given what else Adama brings to the side?

There’s no obvious choice for Wolves, especially if Adama pushes for a move to Tottenham. Each option involves risk; it’s just a matter of what risk Wolves want to take.