The Burkina Faso international captured the imagination with a historical haul against VVV-Venlo, and is proving to be quite the revelation
Football is full of little sliding doors moments.
In the summer transfer window, Dutch champions Ajax tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire an established striker.
For the most part, over the last two years, manager Erik Ten Hag had been partial to playing Serbian schemer Dusan Tadic upfront. The reasoning was that the former Southampton man would act as a ‘false 9’, drifting out wide to combine with the wingers, but also dropping off the last line to allow a runner – usually Donny Van De Beek – to attack the box from deep.
However, as soon as it became clear Van De Beek was off to Manchester United, a more traditional striker became a priority.
That move would ultimately prove unsuccessful, however, and so Ajax went into the season with two options for the role who were at opposing ends of the career spectrum.
There was, on one side, the wizened 37-year-old Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a veteran of close to 250 appearances for the club, and on the other, teenage greenhorn Lassina Traore, who before this season had only managed three starts.
A ballsy strategy, to be sure, but one that paid handsome dividends in last weekend’s merciless 13-0 thrashing of VVV-Venlo. That game also featured a sliding doors moment: after 51 minutes, and with the score at 4-0, defender Christian Kum was sent off for violent conduct following a VAR consultation.
What followed was a deluge of Biblical proportions.
In a game for the record books, Traore announced himself as Ajax’s new totem in attack, equalling a 35-year record, held by no less than Marco Van Basten, by scoring five in a game for the Amsterdam giants.
While the scoreline certainly set tongues a-wagging the world over, Traore’s tally will have come as no surprise to the suits at the club. It was, after all, his exploits with Jong Ajax in the second tier, where he scored 21 goals in just over 30 appearances as an 18-year-old, that convinced the coaches he was ready for minutes with the first team.
The Ajax production line keeps churning out top teenage talent ❌❌❌
— Goal (@goal) March 31, 2020
As far as his ability to find the back of the net was concerned, there was little doubt.
However, in laying on three others for his team mates, the Burkina Faso international provided a strong advert for the Ajax system. His apprenticeship with the club saw him used in varied positions across the front, in line with the universality that underpins the Ajax way.
That has clearly paid dividends, both in terms of his adaptation and his all-round play. It is telling that, despite Ten Hag stating a proper striker is best suited to games he expects to dominate, he selected Traore for the midweek Champions League game against Atalanta. There is now, it appears, a degree of trust; 13-0 may have been a freakish outcome, but it has proven a turning point regardless.
In what was an extravaganza of attacking, and against a side that pushed eventual Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain to the limit in last season’s quarter-finals, Traore made his presence felt, winning a penalty for the opener before pouncing on Marco Sportiello’s fumble to double Ajax’s lead in Bergamo.
Last season, Atalanta were forced to play home matches at San Siro in Milan, with the Atleti Azzurru d’Italia deemed unfit for European competition. Tuesday’s invigorating 2-2 draw was, in essence, the stadium’s European bow, and there was Traore, both welcoming it and gracing it in equal, gleeful measure.
Quite the change for the former Rahimo FC academy player who, as part of a now all-too-familiar motif of privation, learned football playing without boots. Traore grew up in Bobo-Dioulasso as part of a footballing family, the son of former Burkina Faso women international Kadi and cousin to Aston Villa’s Bertrand.
As part of a whirlwind three years, he has moved to South Africa and learnt a new language; impressed enough, despite some initial concerns over his weight (no doubt a legacy of eating candy presented to him by his now deceased grandmother) to be whisked away again to the Netherlands; and has now entered Dutch footballing folklore.
A well-worn – but now sadly sealed-off – path took him from Ajax Cape Town to De Toekomst, and has now placed him front and centre as one of the emerging stars of the European game.