Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Talent Versus Luck: How fine is the line dividing the good from the great players?

Polly's Pause for Sport was recently awarded the honour of being named on the Guardian's list of 100 football blogs to follow in 2011 (this is not, by the way, meant to be an ego-inflating, own-back-patting introduction). I am well aware that there are very good blogs with very good writers around which did not make the list just because they were not spotted. With that in mind I wanted to look at an idea that has troubled for a little while now and see what people thought. This idea is the balance between talent and luck in football.

Over the past couple of years I have had an ongoing debate with a number of people about just what it takes to become a professional football. We as football fans often make the mistake of assuming that the best players always rise to the top while those of a lower pedigree remain with the smaller clubs or in the lower division. But is this always the case?

My argument has often been that some footballers, and some is the important word here, are where they are due to good fortune rather than their own talents. Moreover, if a player considered to be little more than average were to move to a much better team then they could suddenly look much improved. Before I begin though, I would like to make a two things clear. Firstly, as I have just stated, I am referring to a minority of players. I fully accept that great players or the majority of players applying the trade at the best clubs are simply far more talented footballers. Secondly, I accept, of course, that all professional footballers are very talented, I am not suggesting that some of these are actually bad players.

To clarify the point I am trying to make in this post I will use the example of Sergio Busquets as Spain and Barcelona's holding midfielder epitomises my views. Here is a player who is certainly talented. The question is though, is he anywhere near the same class as his team-mates of club and country?

Busquets performs a role and does it well. I would not try and deny that. Again to stress, nor is he a bad player. My point is that he, in my opinion, is replaceable. His job is made easy by the fact he is playing in one of the greatest teams of modern football who are unparalleled in their ability to keep the ball and also have an excellent defence. I cannot help but to feel that there are other midfielders in the world who could perform the same role just as well. Could other players, themselves not great, like Fabrice Muamba, Michael Carrick or Barry Ferguson not play a similar way with similar success in such a side as Busquets does?

To put it another way, if Busquets were to swap places with Muamba, for example, would he shine out as a world-class central midfielder playing with Bolton in the Premiership? If Busquets came through the Almeria youth system (assuming he emerged at the same quality as he did through the Barcelona youth system), would he ever rise to the top of world football as he has done? I have my doubts. I am aware that this is a controversial point. That is why I this debate has been ongoing for so long.

Likewise, a player like Darren Gibson is a well utilised member of the Manchester United squad. However, he too fails to inspire. He may well capture several Premiership Winner medals through his career if he was to stay at Old Trafford but if he were not so lucky it is not a long stretch of the imagination to think he could spend a career as nothing more than a decent player at a decent club.

Supposedly great players can sometimes move from a great club to a worse one and often be found out to not be as great as many once thought. A player like Xavi, Gerrard, Ronaldo or Messi would always stand out as a different class of player to the rest of players on the pitch, regardless of the level they were playing at. These kind of players are a whole different kettle of fish. It is the players who are part of great teams but themselves are not players who could be called remarkable in any way. Could Stephen Warnock from Aston Villa, to pluck a random name out of the air, be switched with Alvaro Arbeloa at Real Madrid and look anymore out of place? How much does the team make the player and how much are these players really superior to their fellow players?

To reverse the way we look at it, could players who may not be thought of as anything special move to bigger clubs and look a lot better? The better teams keep the ball more, create more chances and are, of course, more dominant. As such a player who is struggling to make a name for themselves at a small club could secure a move to a big club and look like a better play than they are.

The underlying point here is that there is an element of luck that can override talent when it comes to making a career as a professional footballer. Busquets can emerge through the Barcelona youth ranks and be embedded in a superb team and make a career winning titles. Yet could he not be replaced with Lucas at Liverpool or Mikel at Chelsea? Busquets is not at Barcelona because he is the best in that position. Nor is he fantastically talented. He is there because he has talent and was fortunate to be put in a great team that allows him to perform his role far easier than it would at any other club where he might look far more average.

Many, indeed most, players will rise through the ranks if they are good enough. Some now are promoted ahead of their talent while others around them are left shackled to poorer teams, unable to shine.

I am sure this will split opinion so I would very much like to hear what people think about the debate. Who playing in great teams around the world is replaceable? Who could play in these great teams and not look out of place?

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...


  1. Difficult one.

    Specifically on Busquets, I think you underplay the fact that he has come through Barca's academy - that's a pretty impressive achievement and I don't think it's a fluke.

    Scouts pick out the best players and big clubs have enough pulling power to hoover up most of the best young prospects; what's more, graduating from the academy demonstrates a top level of talent - most players are let go.

    Players like Gibson, who, I agree would not stand out at a smaller club, actually don't tend to do well at bigger clubs either.

    I would agree though that there are players out there - Chris Brunt of West Brom, for example - who have spent large amounts of their careers at smaller clubs, but given the chance at a bigger club would fit in and look 'absolutely top class'.

    I like to think I'd be more coherent if it wasn't 2am.

  2. Haha. As would I, Ethan! Yeah, I have been overly harsh on Busquets perhaps to prove a point and you are right that graduating from these academies does count for a lot. But there are other players who have the talent but go on unappreciated because they are left at small clubs, like Brunt and there are many more like him.

  3. I think Busquets is better tan you think but that is why I love football, cause their are so many different opinions on players, managers, teams & matches.

    Big clubs need competent squad players like Gibson at Man Utd but I agree more can do that job.

  4. You make a very good point Polly and I know you are only using Busquets as an example but there is no way he has got to the Barcelona team by luck. I agree that he is made to look far better than he may be playing in such a great team and his job is therefore much easier than Fabrice Muamba's but he has obviously shown huge talent at some points in his career.

    To be spotted by Barcelona and be signed by their youth team you have to display a very high level of ability in junior football. Further from that, to then establish yourself in the Barcelona youth team amongst the best of Spanish youth, you must regularly perform at a very high level, and to be chosen to play in such an incredible first team at such a young age (league debut at 20)you clearly have to be a cut above the rest.

    Like you say, it would be very interesting to see how he would perform at somewhere like Bolton or Almeria, but he has earned his place in the Barcelona team on merit. He may be lucky that Barcelona spotted him first which has thereby made his job a lot easier once arriving in the first team, but he has clearly displayed an incredibly high level of talent to get to that point. He was also preferred last season to Yaya Toure, eventually forcing Toure to move, which clearly says a lot about his level of play. He is still only 22 so who knows what the next few years will bring, maybe he will develop into someone with a similar level of ability to someone like Xavi. We will see.

    On the flipside, I am sure Chris Brunt would look a lot better if playing for Arsenal or Chelsea but he was clearly not deemed good enough by youth scouts of the big teams. He was in Middlesbrough's youth team but never made the first team, instead having to drop down to League One with Sheffield Wednesday to get first team football, which is the level that his talent then merited. He is now 26 and managed to reach a good level but it has taken some time for him to develop into a top player. Busquets however, has had huge ability from a young age.

  5. Scott, I think it is your last point that is the key one if I may just expand on it quickly. It is players like Gibson which sum up my view. He played last night as United beat Stoke and moved three points clear at the top of the table. Yet I fail to believe that he could not be swamped his opponent from last night Dean Whitehead and look out of place in the Stoke team. Then again, Gibson is only a squad player. If a player like Denilson at Arsenal was playing at Wolves would we be under the impression he was as good a player. No. Again, he is afforded the luxury of playing in a good Arsenal side that makes us assume he is better than many other Premiership central midfielders going when in reality he probably isn't, in my opinion at least. This is the fine line between luck and talent when making it as a professional footballer.

    Max, great comment cheers. I cannot disagree with much of what you say and your evaluation of Busquets is probably far more fair than mine. That being said, still in my mind I believe he and Muamba (still using him as a random example) could swap roles. Muamba, if given time, could sit and play the holding role as Busquets does and win countless titles because of the world-class team around him which makes his job far easier. Busquets meanwhile could play at Bolton and certainly do well but it would be extremely interesting to see if he really stood out as a different class of player or was exposed as being not as great as many think he is. Likewise, would Brunt shine if he swaped with Kalou at Chelsea. He would get more chances and thus probably more goals. He may not have made it through the youth ranks but the fact remains that the slim difference in talent between large numbers of footballers is so often distorted through the luck that a player has by being at a better club.

  6. Interesting points, though the fact Busquets is currently keeping Mascherano out of the Barca team suggests he may be more valuable than you think. Attitude, fitness, determination and luck obviously play a role in deciding who makes it as a footballer. You only need to look at the plethora of suprememly talented players who never really made it beyond the youth team to see that. Going back to Busquets, doesn't it say something that he actually impressed enough at youth level to be awarded a contract in the first place? Muamba never made it at Arsenal, after all.
    Ibrahimovich made a similar point about Guardiola, saying anyone could have managed this Barcelona team to success. Personally, I don't agree.
    Plenty of good players fail to make it to the top. It's a fate shared by 100% of bad ones.

  7. Actually, I take that last sentence back. Just remembered Gus Caesar.

  8. Great article Polly. Have to say I agree completely with what you say. Furthermore, I think the specific example of Busquets is a very good one.

    People seem to have questioned how Busquets would have got into the Barca academy in the first place if he wasn't talented. We must remember that his father, Carles Busquets, played at Barca for nearly 10 years in the 90s. This surely could have had an impact. We should also consider how much a player develops in an academy like Barcelona's. He grew up playing with people like Messi, Fabregas, Pique on a daily basis. Had Fabrice Muamba had the chance to play with these players, who is to say he wouldn't be as good? What I am trying to say is that luck has a lot to do with it.

    Added to this, I would say that the reason Busquets plays ahead of Mascherano could in fact support Polly's argument. One of my main criticisms of Mascherano as a player is that he is not disciplined enough. Often, when he was at Liverpool, we would be subjected to endless match of the day montages praising him for turning up in all parts of the pitch, covering ground and battling. Barcelona don't need this. They need a disciplined player who will sit in front of the back four and keep it simple; happy to give the ball to the more talented players to start attacks. Thus, perhaps the fact that Busquets is less gifted than other players makes him more useful to Barca.

  9. More good comments, guys. Cheers.

    Micheal, you point is unquestionably valid but I think Rutherford sums up perfectly what I would have said in my rebuttal. His own personal connections may well have got him into the side. Once there he undoubtedly advanced nicely, but many other players would have had they been so lucky.

    I think you are spot on there Rutherford, Mascherano's exclusion from the team does say a lot about Busquets the player. Busquets performs the role required and does it so well because he is not necessarily a great player but one that is simply disciplined enough to do the simple tasks he needs to. A player like Mascherano would, if anything, offer them too much to play such a role.

    Busquets is, for me at least, not uniquely gifted or talented. He has had the good fortune to make the Barcelona youth team (quite possibly thanks to his father) and develop into a good player able to fit a position the Barcelona team requires. A great player is usually someone who is unique and often irreplaceable. Busquets is not that. Other players, if afforded the time to settle into the club and specific position that Busquets has had, could do the same thing. The same could not be said about Xavi, Iniesta or Messi. They are special talents and not any good youngster would have followed their progression to stardom.

    I do not want to appear overly critical of Busquets. To stress again, he is a good player who performs a vital role for Barcelona. I would still argue though that this is a role that other players could have done had they had his good fortune. The same cannot be said of great players as their own unique and special talent has got them where they are. That is the fine line that divides the great and good. Better players will spend a career in comparative obscurity with smaller, worse clubs while worse players have the luxury of elevating their reputation and legacy above the level their talent dictates due to the good fortune of playing in great teams.

  10. The family connection is an interesting one. There must have been a lot of pressure on Buisquets as he followed in his father's footsteps. Plenty of other players have fallen by the wayside in similar circumstances, as have dozens who played alongside Messi and Xavi in Barcelona youth teams. I think you underestimate the role character - as opposed to good fortune - plays in the development of footballers. Taking Rutherford's point as a specific example, the discipline that Busquets brings to his role could be seen as a sign of talent in itself - one that I wish more English international midfielders would share. Is he really less 'talented' than Mascherano or more intelligent about how he uses his ability on the field of play? Let's not forget he kept Senna out of the World Cup team. At the age of 22.

  11. Think you've been a bit harsh on Busquets - a massively under-rated player and one who could, if massaged properly, be a real class act.

    I think he's an intelligent player and has a great future ahead of him.

    That said, some types of players only excel in class teams. Mascherano didn't shine at West Ham. The reason? Because they weren't good enough to utilise his abilities. I reckon if Busquets moved to Bolton, the same would be the case.

    That doesn't mean, however, they are bad players OR that anyone could do the same job.


  12. Nice post, things explained in details. Thank You.


Previous posts