It was supposed to be a coup.
On August 12 Ajax announced the signing of Chelsea product Bertrand Traore on loan. At face value, it was a match made in heaven.
Ajax were in desperate need of a forward to lead the line following the departure of Arkadiusz Milik, and Traore fit the billing – a bright, pacey, technically sound attacker who had previous success in the Eredivisie. The 20-year-old (now 21) would be reunited with Peter Bosz and inserted directly into the starting XI.
Throughout his young career, success followed Traore everywhere he went. He was known for producing some spectacular moments, only fueling talk of his immense potential. Many, including Traore himself, believed he was ready to crack the Chelsea first-team this season, but Antonio Conte had a moment of doubt and Ajax were there to pounce.
Traore has not been shy in criticising Chelsea’s handling of him. He played a fair bit under Guus Hiddink in the latter stages of the 2015/16 campaign, albeit in a lost season for the Blues, but he was also a focal point for them in the preseason – and for that reason, he was vocal in questioning Chelsea’s decision to loan him out. Bottom line, he came to Ajax with a chip on his shoulder. He had a point to prove.
Traore’s arrival in Amsterdam was marked with palpable anticipation. Expectations were high, and for good reason. This was a guy just one season removed from a 13 goal, five assist campaign with Vitesse, under the tutelage of Peter Bosz. Now he would be in Amsterdam, a city where stars are born, following in the footsteps of a number of prolific strikers to come before him.
16 – Only Valeri Qazaishvili (19) scored more Eredivisie goals for Peter Bosz at Vitesse than Bertrand Traoré (16). Protégé.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) August 12, 2016
There were some, myself included, who expected him to be on the shortlist for player of the season come May. How couldn’t he be? The stars were aligned. He had the skill, a familiarity with the manager and system, a clear path to playing time, and talent surrounding him.
Traore debuted for the club on August 13, a day after arriving on loan, in a 2-2 draw with Roda, before making his first start just three days later at home to Rostov in the Champions League. His full-debut provided plenty of reason for optimism, leading the line with renewed energy and determination. He registered four shots, three on target (a team high), but failed to find the back of the net as Ajax settled for a 1-1 draw.
With a more clinical showing, Ajax likely would have gone on to win the match, and who knows from there. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and Traore’s lack of sharpness in front of goal was largely attributed to fatigue, having just arrived in Amsterdam from London, and a bit of rust, with it being so early in the season. It did nothing to temper expectations.
Matches came and went, while the wait for Traore’s breakout continued. It wasn’t until the emergence of Kasper Dolberg that Traore’s contributions first came into question. Dolberg flashed his skill in limited opportunities in August, starting four matches (one technically coming in July), scoring three goals.
Despite impressing when awarded the chance, Dolberg was dropped to the bench following Traore’s arrival, limited to a pair of substitute appearances against Rostov, while failing to see the pitch in the defeat to Willem. But as playing time came his way, it became harder and harder to drop him from the XI.
Dolberg had to wait until September 24 to start his first match of the month, returning to the XI against Roda with a brace, including a stunning strike off the underside of the bar from 20 yards, on the end of a remarkable individual run. Following the two-goal effort, he was rewarded with a first Europa League start later that week, where he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Standard Liege.
He subsequently became a fixture in the starting line-up, ending the experiment of Traore as a number nine, forcing him onto to the right side of the attacking trident. His pace and technical ability suggested he would flourish on the flank, running at Eredivisie full-backs. At times, he’s done just that – but consistency has not been his strong suit.
On paper, his numbers don’t look entirely bad. Four goals in 13 league matches, and another in the Europa League, suggest a decent, though slightly modest, start to the season. It’s just not enough. Perhaps expectations were too high. But given his resume and attacking pedigree, the expectations were justified – he just hasn’t lived up to them. It cost Ajax a similar fee to get Traore on loan than it did for them to buy Milik – yet his numbers pale in comparison.
There’s been flashes of brilliance from the Burkina Faso international. His finishing ability has been on display, though sporadically, with impressive goals against both NEC and AZ. There’s times when he cuts in from the right on that lethal left foot of his and has goalkeepers at his mercy. But for long spells he’s wasteful – a disappointingly far cry from convincing in front of goal.
When he’s not scoring, Traore is expected to create. He sees plenty of the ball on a team that commands possession, but the ingenuity has not been there. Traore has lacked the basic resourcefulness on the flank to provide and carve out clear-cut chances. Outside of a two-assist performance against Celta Vigo in the Europa League, he’s registered just one in 13 Eredivisie appearances – an alarmingly low total given Ajax’s 34 collective league goals this season.
Peter Bosz is on record saying Traore’s attitude is not a problem, questioning instead his fitness, but even that is up for debate. He seems to have no qualms running at defenders and taking on a challenge – it’s just the end product that’s letting him down. He’s refreshingly direct, and capable of producing some truly incredible, jaw-dropping runs, but they’ve been few and far between. For a player of his technical ability, simply put, it’s inexcusable.
Support in attack is far from lacking, but it almost appears as though he’s out there on an island at times. There’s this desire that fuels him to try and pull off the spectacular, when the simple ball will do just fine, and it’s for this reason that he doesn’t have the cohesion with the side necessary to fulfil Bosz’s vision. Far too many moves die with him out wide. Wastefulness in possession will have a manager pulling his hair out, and Bosz is running low in that regard.
30 – Bertrand Traore lost possession with 30 of his 67 touches against Heracles Almelo. Wasteful.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) September 18, 2016
Here in lies the problem. No question about it, Traore is gone at year’s end. His loan expires in May and from there he will be back at Chelsea. If he doesn’t factor into Conte’s plans, you can bet he will be sold to another competitive Premier League club, or something that rivals that level of football. Ajax is not in his future plans.
The future of the right-wing position at Ajax falls on the shoulders of Czech prodigy Vaclav Cerny. The skillful teenager has caught the eyes of coaches up and down the ranks in Amsterdam, continuing to force his way into the team. He’s had his struggles with consistency as well, but that comes with inexperience. Traore is far from inexperienced.
If Cerny can produce at a similar rate, there’s little argument to keep him on the bench in favour of a player who will be gone at season’s end.
Options are bountiful for Bosz on the right. Look no further than Anwar El Ghazi, a player who dropped to third on the depth chart following a falling out with the manager, but has been incredibly professional in accepting his demotion to Jong Ajax. El Ghazi took the punishment in stride, expressing his desire to remain in Amsterdam and win back the respect of the coaching staff. He passed the test with flying colours, putting in a string of eye-catching performances in the Eerste Divisie, scoring four goals in four matches, before being promoted back to the first team this past week.
The question surrounding El Ghazi has never been about his ability – he has talent in spades. It’s his attitude that’s prevented him from taking the next step, but those issues appear to have finally worked themselves out. He didn’t run from adversity like Ricardo Kishna or Nicolai Boilesen – though Frank de Boer didn’t exactly handle those situations with much grace, in fairness. El Ghazi faced his demons head on, taking the wake-up call in stride, and he looks a better man for it.
There’s no doubt he’s earned another run-in with the first team. Traore’s struggles and Cerny’s youthfulness have opened the door for El Ghazi, a player who opened last season with seven goals in six games before a stint in the infirmary halted his remarkable run of form.
Traore was brought in to be the short-term solution for Ajax at a time of need, following Milik’s departure, but the emergence of Dolberg has made him expendable. He hasn’t flourished on the right as was the hope, thus with the title race heating up and options plentiful behind him, the time for Traore to be dropped from the starting XI is now.
Perhaps he is a player best suited for a reserve role. There’s a strong case to be made for Traore to be limited to 20-30 minutes a match. His pace would prove a nightmare for opposing full-backs, late in games, making him a potentially valuable weapon off the bench for Bosz.
He can earn his spot back with a string of impressive substitute appearances – but gone should be the days of his name being one of the first on the team sheet.
It’s a privilege, and he’s squandered it.