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...