On the ball, off the ball or in the mind. How do footballers establish themselves?

On the ball, off the ball or in the mind. How do footballers establish themselves?

Johan Cruyff
“When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball three minutes on average … So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.” – Johan Cruyff

Talent and especially talent on the ball is the factor most overrated by fans and players alike when evaluating a footballer. And judging by the above quote it is a viewpoint shared by the great Johan Cruyff. And to that of course, the vagaries of luck, opportunity and physical and mental maturity must be factored into the equation that creates football success.

If I were given the option, I would certainly always rather trade luck (in terms of opportunity and avoiding injuries) and mental strength for the fairy dust of prodigious skill manipulating a football.

Physical and especially mental bravery can compensate in large part for a deficit of pace, technique or skill that might otherwise prevent a footballer reaching a high level in the professional game.

And at the very top level (where all the basic characteristics of a good footballer are a given) it is physical and especially mental bravery that allows mediocre players to be good players and very good players to be top class.

Physical and especially mental bravery are the two attributes that can’t really be taught or improved upon as a function of personality. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule in each case (young players who suddenly emerge seemingly transformed as mature players – such as Manchester United’s Roy Keane) but there aren’t many of them and I would consider them outliers. Indeed, Roy Keane is the only player I’ve heard off who unequivocally defied the initial assessment of him in a meaningful way. Too small, too soft they said, according to a scouting legend.

Bravery of all kinds can be suppressed or dormant but it has to be in there somewhere to evidence itself and I don’t think it is a characteristic that is common to everyone.

I always remember working for a very shrewd manager who lamented of his number nine: “I can make him a better player, with better positional awareness, better fitness and stamina, we can even work a bit on his pace, but I can’t make him brave.”

“Superstars in training but insipid in matches.”

There are many reasons why players don’t make it, fall away, or fail to transfer their ability to match situations. Some ‘Tuesday morning footballers’ find themselves consistently on the bench due to inconsistency or lack of a key component (either physical or mental) required for success.

Everywhere at every level you see managers persist with selecting mavericks and rough diamonds when there is nothing in their performances, other than blind optimism and an increasingly distant highlights reel, that suggests they should be picked.

And there are many reasons why players get tagged with the reputation of being superstars in training but insipid in matches.

So what is it that separates the key men in any team from the bench-warmers and also-rans?

Here is a run through of some typical scenarios. I am going to tackle them all together as most of them are interrelated in some way or other:

1. The player is simply not as good as their direct replacement in the starting line up. Not as good can mean mentally, physically, tactically or emotionally weaker. Perhaps they can perform with freedom in training because there is no pressure on them. They are unlikely to feature in a match any time soon while their route to the first team is blocked. This will hamper or maybe even kill their career. They need to move on.

2. They are off form and cannot get a starting berth on current merit. But in training, again, they can play with freedom and without pressure. It is once they cross the white line that the problems start for them.

3. They are not fit or returning from an injury and need a run of games to regain previous form and confidence. Perhaps there is an underlying physical problem that comes to the fore in the intensity of a big match.

4. The coach has a policy of not changing a winning team so they can’t get back in until the team lose. Their situation is a fait accompli – however hard they train.

5. They are not part of the manager’s specific starting game plan for this match and they will only feature if there is a change of tactics in play and a substitution is required. And that may mean that they can’t get up to speed in matches. They need a run of games. Again luck and seizing limited opportunities is nine tenths of the law here, in terms of the player wrestling back their dream of fulfilling their potential.

6. There is a personality clash somewhere that means that the player is out of favour and will only feature as an absolute necessity. However, he trains with intensity as he has one eye on a move as soon as possible. These sorts of players are professional, strong, resourceful and typically successful in the longer term.

7. The player has specific skills that have seen them pigeon-holed as ‘an impact sub’. These skills could include blinding pace or the personality of a lightweight but skilful player who only excels against tiring opponents. It is a tag that no player wants as it makes them a ‘fill-in’, a bit part player whose place in the team never becomes secure. Show me an impact sub or a utility player and I will show you a player that the odds are against short, medium and long term.

8. The player is in decline but can still ‘do a job’ as a substitute in games where their experience can have an important effect on a result or team performance. This decline is not so evident training with familiar teammates or in easier games.

9. The player may also be a legacy signing from a previous coaching regime and as such the current manager doesn’t rate them or want to play them. He may give them a showcase in certain games in an attempt to put them ‘in the shop window’ for other clubs’ scouts to evaluate – and leave them out at other times. Again, it is hard to find form, match fitness or consistency when your appearances are sporadic. Bad luck and limited opportunity kills good ability, every time.

10. There are many reasons why second-stringers fail as regular starters and the clue is largely in the reasons why they were benched in the first place.
It could be as simple as the wrong player, in the wrong club at the wrong time.

11. The player takes time to get up to the speed of the competition and simply needs to play a lot of consecutive matches to reach an optimum level.

12. The player may have talent but is young and lacking experience, and needs to be nurtured carefully. Young players are generally very inconsistent as a function of their physical status and emotional immaturity. But they will typically train well in a familiar, less hostile environment and if they’re good (and lucky) they get there in time.

13. The player may have a poor attitude and is content just to pick up their wages and doesn’t care about playing.

14. The player may have talent but lacks consistency in their play.

15. The player may have talent but goes to pieces in front of a ground or when playing at an opponents’ stadium.

16. The player is being asked to perform a role in matches that is not a good fit with their skill-set.

17. The player’s ‘head is gone’ as the result of poor morale, or off field or on field problems. This is reflected in their poor performance and inconsistency. This often occurs when a player is regularly singled out by fans for abuse or non-constructive criticism.

18. The player is not mentally or physically fit enough to perform consistently well.

And here is the relevant context:

By the time players are playing at the top levels – elite international underage teams and the likes – it is more than likely that they have the physical raw material to make it at some level professionally, even if they have to drop down levels to find their standard in the game.

At that stage though, other more fugitive factors come into play: opportunity to continue developing through elite level game time, perception of quality amongst scouts, coaches, peers and managers, luck with injuries for example.
Players themselves naturally focus on physical attributes (the thing they seem to have most control over) to explain success. And you can see why, all these other imponderables come into sharper focus as D-Day looms for players’ careers.

It often looks like a beauty contest where luck and perception can easily overwhelm talent and personal motivation as defining factors.

In this respect football takes on all the key themes of elite jobs where the opportunities for advancement are limited by a small number of new slots – like modelling, pop music or acting, for example. And that’s why the attrition rates and the hard luck stories of the ‘nearly men’ are so pronounced and the rewards for the victors have to be so high economically. The pot of gold is always at the end of a very long rainbow.

Small margins

Take Harry Kane for example, his rise to international prominence with Tottenham Hotspur. His success seems like a given now, what with his goals for Spurs and his England caps. But even by his own telling the success he’s enjoyed was really the product of a lot of seemingly unconnected factors that aligned perfectly and at once.

Harry Kane

If the dice were rolled again, in his case, Harry Kane could just as easily be plying his trade at a lower level as a serial loanee, and worrying about his longer term prospects at Spurs. Small margins not absolutes like ‘talent will out’ define all our life chances and outcomes – whatever walk of life we are in, but especially in football.