Blink and you might have missed Tammy Abraham’s start to the season. While his loan move to Swansea City has come with the benefit of Premier League minutes, playing as a lone forward for one of the division’s weaker sides comes at a cost. Across the goalless draw with Southampton on the opening day and the 4-0 humbling at the hands of Manchester United, Abraham averaged just ten completed passes and failed to record a shot on-target.
Some of that has been a measure of what Swansea are. Paul Clement spent the summer in limbo, unable to properly reconstruct his squad until Gylfi Sigurdsson had been sold. The consequence has been disjointed football; determination to be resilient behind the ball, but an inability to actually do much with it. Abraham has been sporadically involved, limited to neat pirouettes here and there, the odd well-cushioned touch and having to grind away in isolation at the top of the pitch.
The usefulness of this loan will be proven in time and probably partly determined by what Swansea are able to do between now and the end of the transfer-window. Already, however, the importance of first-team exposure is self-evident – even if it doesn’t reflect in the level of his involvement, it does in the quality of his contributions.
Abraham is gifted. English football has never been short of physical centre-forwards, either now or in the past, but rarely has one emerged endowed which such a delicate touch. Bristol City supporters will tell you, for instance, that although Abraham’s current reputation has been shaped by the 23 Championship goals he scored for their side last season, his promise is garnished with a dusting of velvet. He moves well in the penalty box, anticipating loose balls and opportunities, and his height makes him dangerous aerially, but he’s also a highly watchable pivot – he’s extremely stylish.
Alas, those are qualities which haven’t quite shone at the highest level yet. But against Crystal Palace on Saturday they started to shimmer. The takeaway detail for most will be his goal – a well-taken poacher’s effort, for which he made a smart adjustment and had to withstand an over-attentative Martin Kelly. Goals are a forward’s currency, of course, but in both halves Abraham showed what a complete lineleader he could potentially become. A neat one-two with Kyle Naughton early in the game sprung him into space on the Palace right and the cross he produced really should have allowed Jordan Ayew to open the scoring. Elsewhere, he produced smart first touches, drew fouls, and wrestled with centre-halves effectively.
It wasn’t flawless. Goals tend to airbrush inconvenient details and, for a player of lesser potential, that would be entirely fine. For Abraham, though, the intrigue is in watching him grow game-by-game and seeing him slowly narrow the gap between what he currently is and what he may one day become.
The need for young players to gain experience is often presented in generic, fluffy terms. We know, for instance, that first-team opportunities are a good thing and that talent has a greater chance to mature if it’s actually allowed out from under the incubator, but rarely are many specifics applied to that discussion. But Abraham presents a chance to study them: a player with a top-flight career in reach, but one who is having to make the necessary adjustments to grasp it.
The best players self-educate. While they remain reliant on their coaches and teammates, they’re also informed by every touch they take in a game. At this point in Abraham’s career, it’s actually possible to watch that process: to see him adjusting his body position to better protect possession and to notice him adapting to the myriad challenges posed by a defence. Where’s the space, where’s the contact coming from, and where are the supporting players; the speed with which he’s making those calculations is growing quicker already.
Several Swansea players gave thoroughly decent performances in south London and, as a team, they deserved their win. If Abraham’s contribution receives extra attention though, it’s because his improvement over these first three games has arguably been the most pronounced. Even the haste with which he dispatched his goal was descriptive: there was no hesitation, no extra steadying touch, and none of the dalliance there was on opening day, when he allowed those Southampton defenders to scramble back after that divine, second-half drag-back.
It all matters, it’s all telling – and, as with the other young English players who are finally being allowed to explore the Premier League environment, watching Abraham learn and grow will continue to be exhilarating.