“Patience is not the ability to wait. Patience is to be calm no matter what happens, constantly take action to turn it to positive growth opportunities, and have faith to believe that it will all work out in the end while you are waiting.” ~ Roy T. Bennett
That’s the problem with potential in football. Remaining steadfast in the belief of a player who ‘might be’ rather than ‘is’ is much harder, particularly as the time constraints tighten round the necks of the professionals within the game. Out of sight, out of mind does not apply anymore because there isn’t a blade of glass being played on that doesn’t have a lens beating down on it. Has there ever been a harder time to be a young player in football? It is the heightened expectations, particularly at the top, that is making so that young players are not afforded nowhere the time they were given before. There are a host of reasons, one being that managers themselves are given less time and the process of bedding in these young players will not be worthwhile at the cost of their job.
But it is not everyone that is worth waiting for. There are a myriad of factors in a player making it at the top level and fulfilling the potential they have been adjudged to have. Neither is the development of every player linear. Most will follow the same paths but such are things that are influenced by a significant amount of factors, differences will occur that will make it so that others who do not progress in the way that we think they will. The argument on potential and attitude to youth in general has its myopic camps but what’s the real issues in today’s game?
“Talent doesn’t exist in young players. Talent is something that you are able to show at a high level over a period of time. We’re talking about consistency, that’s talent. Talent has to be confirmed. It’s the confirmation of potential. It’s getting to the top and maintaining that level over a period of time.” ~ Didier Deschamps
Everyone has differing opinions on what potential really is. Potential, talent, ability are all used interchangeably when discussing the base level of prowess in a young player. It often precedes an explanation that consistent application of said potential/talent/ability is what is needed in order for it to be recognised as something more. Something more tangible for those in the game and on the periphery looking in to hang their hat on. However, the problem with this is that it seems 100% of the responsibility is attached to the player when really it cannot be, although the lion share has to come down to them. It is ignorant of the fact that the environment has an indelible mark on how a player develops later on in his career. Usually when a player’s potential is spoken about, it is pertaining to how far they could reach with the natural ability with the consistency and lack of inefficiencies seen in a more experienced player. Everything going in their favour is the basis of their maximum potential. Good enough individual coaching to improve their strengths and iron out weaknesses; ample game time in order for the coaching to be tested in game settings and lack of injuries so the chances to train and play is not lessened.
So if we think of a definition of potential that accurately accounts for the environment and circumstance in determining the ‘final’ – Sir Alex Ferguson thought a player’s ability to improve was never finished and it was one of the main reasons he made Rene Meulensteen the first team technical coach – ability then a more fitting description of footballing potential would be
The best a player could be given he is provided with the best circumstances and environment
Really and truly, can it be said of any player that they get the optimum circumstances and environment surrounding them? There is, however, the ability to discern if such circumstance or the environment that supposedly affected the player is enough to truly be considered a reason for stunting their said growth
Another discussion that needs to be had is whether a younger player can be without potential at all. In the way that not every player’s development is parallel, could it be true that some players’ ‘final’ ability is reached at a much earlier age? Relative age effect has been described as a reason to why some players develop physically slower than their others in their age group do. Players born at different times in the year develop slower than the older players in the group, backed by numerous amounts of data and reports. Physical development full stop differs between the each player; compare Jesse Lingard fully developing by 20/21, Danny Welbeck having a growth spurt at 18/19 being a significant reason as to why he went on loan to Preston and Scott McTominay growing a few inches in a year to be as tall as he is now. But that middles out soon enough and there is enough evidence out there for coaches to know what to do with these unique situations. Though, what if some players are able to playing at the level that will be the optimum for the rest of their career and were just able to achieve it earlier? You could think of Wayne Rooney being the shining example of this given the reaction to when he first burst on the scene, it was expected that he would continue to get better and follow the same similar line of development as other young players. This was not the case but it was the outside influences of Rooney’s failing to keep up a professional footballer off the field and being moved around in different positions because of his wide variety of skills, that were given more attribution as to why England’s record goalscorer did not reach the levels that were predicted of him.
The maturity that Rooney was able to play at, at that age, saw him treated like a first team player and you can contrast this with how Ronaldo was introduced into the first team set up at Man Utd. The Portuguese winger played 1551 mins in his first season to Rooney’s 2185 at Manchester United, both in 29 league appearances, shows the level of trust that the latter had in regards to playing in the first team from the off, the Croxeth man maybe even playing more if he had moved with an injury. Physically but more importantly, mentally, Rooney was suited to the pressures of top level football. Contemporarily, one could point to Kylian Mbappe sharing this trait with the Liverpudlian, where the way he plays is reminiscent more of a man than a teenager. His temperament, something Rooney could not even handle until his early twenties, and decision making are what someone would expect from players in the middle of their career. This does create the question where either the little room of improvement may see him be judged as Rooney has been, in failing to fulfil his potential, or is this just the early embers of a career that could potentially match and surpass what has been set by Ronaldo and Messi in this generation? Only time will tell but perhaps it is something more to consider
“When you have a big injury before the age of 20, you come back and redevelop completely normally, once the psychological damage is out of your head. So I was not too much worried but you never know how big, how deep the impact is psychologically.” ~ Arsene Wenger on Aaron Ramsey’s broken leg
However, such cases of mature young players, like your Rooneys and Mbappes, are a rarity and developing players go through similar trials and tribulations in order to make the best of their ability. Hoping to turn whatever comes their way into positive growth opportunities and it all working out in the end, like Bennett’s adage. Injuries, particularly the severe or chronic ones, are the one of the worst things that could happen to a player in his formative years and are one of the circumstances, if bad enough, that should be considered in negating a player’s development and in some cases, giving dispensation
The example of Aaron Ramsey is the clearest of all that it takes a while for a younger player who has suffered a traumatic injury to recover. Their development has effectively been suspended during recover. That is just in a physical and fitness sense. By the time those are back up to the levels that they were before the injury, it is now the time where they are playing catch up on the game experience that was missed during rehabilitation. In effect, they are suspended in that moment from when they suffered the injury and continue on from the point when they are back. This is just the technical and tactical aspect of the game. Mentally, the issues of coming back from such set backs is hard enough for established players, let alone those who are just coming into the game. Luke Shaw is the most recent and high profile example of it, still being in the midst of it in fact. He looks to be recovering form however, it looks like the difficulty in coming back from his broken leg has condemned his career at Man Utd, with Jose Mourinho offering little sympathetic support or faith where most would think that the situation of the young fledgling left back would require it.
It is not just the traumatic injuries. Constant chronic injuries are just as debilitating to player who is developing than just one injury that is severe enough to keep one out for a long stretch. Jack Wilshere and Thiago Alcantara were described as a generational talent, whose consistent suffering of injuries has stunted their growth to the point where they may not be able to salvage the status within the game that was there for them if they were able to stay fit. Daniel Sturridge and Phil Jones are both domestic examples of how chronic injuries are issues, even though the latter is beginning to string together long stretches of games without interruption. However, some players need different training regimes in order to achieve the same fitness that others do without the special attention, Robin van Persie being an obvious case. The issue is when to cut ties when the ample chances have been given to this player to get fit and it is this line differs depending on the place of the player
“‘Piet, he doesn’t want to train(under me anymore)’. Until I went to see a training session: Kevin was the best player on the pitch. Look, Mourinho is a performance focused coach, who has achieved a lot in his career. He wants to work with fully developed players. He thought Kevin needed one, maybe two years. But Kevin was ready. And Kevin was convinced too” ~ Piet de Visser on his discussion with Jose Mourinho on Kevin de Bruyne
The environment of the player is often the deciding factor. Some clubs have a history of giving more chances to young players, whatever the circumstances they face. Some managers have a history of giving more chances to young players, due to coming through the grassroots & youth coaching system and incorporating it into the philosophy. This exposure to young players means they are more likely to know the difference development paths that a young player could be on and what needs to be put in place in order for him to make the best of his ability.
However, these clubs and managers are becoming fewer and further between due to the pressure cooker of top-level football increases with the more money that is flooded into the game. Owners are not understanding to the fact that a cultivating a culture where young players are allowed to grow and thrive may mean the results will not always be positive. Given the revenue will decrease with relegation or not qualifying for European competitions, the risk taking is severely limited by the pressure on the manager losing his job. It takes a club with a structure that allows breathing space for a small drop off so that a good amount of minutes for these younger players can be achieved, particularly if the goal is to build a core around these players. The quote of Piet de Visser shows what can happen when a club does not have the correct integration methods can see good players fall by the wayside.
Rio Ferdinand spoke of how Ronaldo would use training as the place to hone skills and would see how seamlessly it would translate into game situations whenever he would begin to do it during matches. The importance of proper dedication in training is what is most attributed to what separates those that make it at the top and those who do not but the significance of coaching and the time given to then do such things in game situations, where the pressure is completely different, is the making of the player. Training or game time alone is not the answer. However, the issue with this is that the top clubs recognise this but they are given the game time elsewhere via loans, which may not be conducive with the parent club’s philosophy and ethics. Most times, it is to a lower division, which is not necessarily the best place to showcase the abilities that would be needed to thrive at a top club. However, clubs know not every player will make it and these loans for majority prepare them for the leagues they will ply their trade in
“The frustrating thing is seeing ones like (Adnan) Januzaj, (James) Wilson or Federico Macheda get up to that level and stop doing the work they did to get them to that level. Not play the games, not train as hard, sit in jacuzzis and not do the same weights and sessions they did to get there. Those are the frustrating ones for me, because that could be avoided.” ~ Warren Joyce on his disappointments at the United academy
Even so, while everything may not be perfect, there is still a responsibility on the player at forcing himself to make it at the top level. One failure is not enough to tar a player for the rest of his career and the ability to bounce back and return to the highest level has been displayed on many occasions. While it is in my opinion that too much focus is not placed on the football clubs and manager in allowing these young players to thrive, one not making it at one club cannot be down to any factor that was inside of his control. In some cases, the risk of even leaving a club in hopes of proving yourself is better served than waiting for the chance to come around.
Much is made of the mollycoddled nature of football these days compared to yesteryear, where players were made to clean boots and cars during their youth days. Treated as apprentices and pushed to the limit by their older counterparts to prepare them for the rigours that were to be faced if they ever made it professionally. However, as teams became richer and the academy system was shifted more onto being the clubs’ responsibility rather than the footballing federation of the nation, they began to be remunerated as they were incentivised to stay at one club over going to another. The flush of money has not just restricted the integration culture but changed the youth culture along with it. It perhaps why it is often speculated that the players relax once they have made it into the first team, as Joyce suggested with his biggest disappointments.
But that is the problem with potential in football. The delicacy of getting it right, from the club all the way down to the player, is perhaps the most contributing factor to why so few are willing to integrate youth. Unwavering belief despite what may happen to curtail, not being the most conducive surrounds and even with all these in their favour, it may be that they just do not reach the heights you expected of them. It is often said that patience is a virtue but this attitude makes it as if others have to do favours for the player. Patience is neither an expectation as you have an obligation to show that you are worth the wait. In the end, it’ll always be a give a take in it all working out in the end but conditions only look like worsening for it to happen.