Given the shambles that Fiorentina’s midfield has been in for most of the year, you can’t blame the fans for looking forward to 2019-2020, when the arrivals of Hamed Junior Traorè and Szymon Żurkowski look set to bolster the Viola engine room. While I can’t find a very good set of statistics for the Ekstraklasa and thus must wait to see more of the latter, I’ve decided to do a little bit of a deep dive on Traorè and see what sort of player he is. A moderately deep dive into the numbers (as always, they’re all per 90 minutes unless otherwise marked and come from WhoScored.com) and a comparison to the current crop of Fiorentina midfielders follows.
Traorè was born on 16 February 2000 (eek), so he’s got a birthday coming up in the next couple of weeks. Born in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, he got his footballing start in Italy with amateur outfit Boca Barco (about 23 km southeast of Parma) before Empoli scouts spotted him in 2015 and brought him into the fold. He rose quickly through the academy ranks, earning a debut with the senior side against Foggia in 8 October 2017, aged just 17. Following the club’s promotion to Serie A, he’s stepped right into the setup; while he was more of a bench option early in the season, he’s started the past 13 matches for the Azzurri, totalling 19 appearances and an assist. He’s also just been called up to the Côte d’Ivoire U20s for the first time, which is quite impressive for a kid who’s still 18 and jumping a couple of age groups.
Standing at 6’0/182 cm and possessing a robust build, he got his start as an attacking midfielder who could play out wide in a pinch, but has moved further back the pitch this year to more of a box-to-box role. The consensus seems to be that the €12 million Fiorentina paid for him this January is a heavy discount, as his contract runs out at season’s end. He’s quite excited for the move down the road to Florence, according to Manuel Pasqual, so that’s nice.
16 - Among the youngest players of the Top-5 European leagues current season (+14 games played), only Ryan Sessegnon (20) and Jadon Sancho (17) have played more games than Hamed Junior #Traore (16). Ready. pic.twitter.com/Y3UqkrMZgL— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) January 15, 2019
Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Traorè ‘s passing numbers aren’t great. He completes, on average, a shade under 70% of his 36.1 passing attempts per match. He’s at right around 79% of his 31.8 short passes, but sits at a concerning 51% on his 4.3 long passes. He attempts considerably fewer passes than 6 other Empoli midfielders, indicating that he’s either doing something besides passing when he gets the ball or that he’s simply a passenger a lot of the time.
With just 0.7 attempted crosses per game, it’s clear that he’s not a danger to drift wide a la Marco Benassi. He makes 1 key pass per 90 minutes and it’s usually of the shorter variety. That’s tops amongst the Empoli central midfielders. So, as a passer, he doesn’t move the ball around as well as his colleagues, but he’s got an eye for the killer pass, particularly with a short layoff. Keep that in mind for the next section, as it will help present a fuller portrait of him.
This is also where we have to address team context, though, and that paints Traorè’s passing in a rosier light. As a team, Empoli completes around 80% of their passes, putting the Ivorian right in the middle of the pack. Taking into account that defenders generally have the highest passing percentages, things look even better, comparatively. Too, let’s not forget that Empoli are just 14th in Serie A in terms of possession at 48.4% and are 12th in shots per game at 12.9. That means that Traorè gets fewer chances on the ball than a lot of other players in the league, and that he makes fewer key passes as his teammates don’t shoot very often.
Remember in the section above when we discussed how Traorè is doing something other than passing when Empoli have possession? Here’s where things get fun. He completes 1.9 of his 2.8 dribbles, which is tops amongst central midfielders on the team. So instead of passing every time he gets the ball, he likes to drive forward in possession up the middle. That, in fact, is his trademark, and one of the reasons that he’s considered such a top player. His knack for receiving the ball with a man on his back, then turning past the defender and accelerating into space between the lines, is impressive. As he matures and gets even stronger, he’s going to improve at that aspect as well.
Reinforcing his both his excellent dribbling skills and his youthful inexperience are his turnover numbers. He only takes a bad touch (defined by WhoScored as a bad control) 1.9 times a match, which is right about where you’d want it to be for a player who dribbles so much, particularly in the middle of the pitch, which tends to be more congested. However, he also gets dispossessed (defined by WhoScored as losing the ball to an opponent without attempting to dribble, so basically by dallying on the ball) 1.9 times a game, which indicates that he’s often unsure what to do with the ball when he gets it. As he gets more time in Serie A—remember that this is is first full season as a starter outside the Primavera—he should improve in that aspect.
Next up, we’ll have a quick look at his shooting. He tries 1.9 per 90 minutes, which is a fair number for a central midfielder, particularly on a team as shooting-averse as Empoli. 1.3 of those attempts come from outside the box, and 0.6 from inside the box. He likes a pop from distance, then, but also gets into the area to shoot due in part to his dribbling ability. He also gets 0.8 of his total shots on frame (WhoScored doesn’t track shot accuracy by type, sadly), so the fact that he hasn’t scored yet this year isn’t too much of a concern. In a better team that will pressure opposing defenses better and leave more space for him to motor into, we’d expect him to pick that total up to somewhere around 5 goals per season.
This is another area in which Traorè looks ready to excel. He attempts 3.4 tackles and succeeds in 2.2 of them, which is an impressive rate for anyone, much less an 18-year-old. He only makes 1 interception per 90 minutes, but that should pick up as he gains more experience. Also, have a look at the chart below; Statsbomb defines a pressure regain as “Times a player’s team won the ball back within 5 seconds of the player pressuring an opponent.” So Traorè has a knack for forcing opponents into mistakes even when he doesn’t win the ball. That ability to press fits in perfectly with what Fiorentina has been doing under Pioli.
Pressure Regains, Big 5 Leagues 2018-19... pic.twitter.com/MNeEYDBGO9— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) January 9, 2019
Let’s have a quick look at how Traorè compares to the current Fiorentina midfielders. We’ll look at Jordan Veretout, Marco Benassi, Gerson, and Edimilson Fernandes, who’ve played the most minutes for the Viola; Bryan Dabo and Christian Nørgaard, sadly, haven’t seen the pitch enough to draw too many conclusions. Anyways, here we go.
With Gerson and Edimilson Fernandes likely to return to AS Roma and West Ham United, respectively, at the end of the season, Stefano Pioli is going to need more midfielders. Hamed Junior Traorè’s dribbling and ball recovery make him a perfect fit for a midfield template that requires a lot of running, furious pressing, and an ability to motor past a defender to start a counter.
As a dynamic dribbler in the middle, Traorè is likely the replacement for Gerson, whose knack for sealing off his man and trundling forward to win a foul has been a big part of the Viola engine room this season. Unlike the Brazilian, though, Traorè doesn’t tend to drift into the wide areas to create overloads with the wingers. He should add a bit more defensively too.
The two areas to really keep an eye on with Traorè next year will be his passing and his final product. At this stage of his development, he’s not the sort of player who’ll put his foot on the ball and dictate a match, which will probably disappoint fans who are desperate for a midfielder who can exert that sort of control. If he can cut down the turnovers and improve his passing, though, he shouldn’t be any worse than Benassi or Fernandes in possession, although that does feel like a low bar to clear.
He’ll also need to improve his end product. Gerson has been excellent at progressing the ball into the attacking third by dribbling past opponents or winning free kicks, but he hasn’t found the final product nearly consistently enough for a guy who’s frequently breaking forward. If Traorè can keep his passing tidy and thread the ball through to Federico Chiesa, Luis Muriel, and Giovanni Simeone regularly, he’ll be an upgrade to Gerson, who’s been a decent starter. And, given that he’ll be just 19 at the start of next year, there’s a lot of room for growth. Overall, we’re very excited to see Hamed Junior Traorè in purple, as he’s a good fit and should only improve.