Do Young Soccer Players Actually Have “Potential”?

I have the word “potential” muted on Twitter.

No, this isn’t me being stubborn to prove a point. I’ve developed a genuine distaste towards the word. “Potential” is an unquantifiable measure used to describe how good a player will be later in life, but more importantly, it’s now a term thrown around more than hammers at the Olympics. 17-year old getting minutes in one of Europe’s top leagues? Bags of potential. Young South American linked to a European club? He has the potential to be the next big thing. 20-year old starting often but not yet the finished article? Doesn’t matter, he has potential. The word has become a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone talking about a young player and that has to stop, because nobody has really sat down to ask themselves:

Does potential actually exist?

Forget "potential": Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski has been at his peak for years.

Robert Lewandowski is arguably the best striker in world football right now. He can win duels and push past defenders just as well as he can shoot from range and move silently through the box. Do you remember when he was 20? Unless you were well acquainted with the Polish Ekstraklasa in the late 2000s, the answer was probably “no.” What about Gonzalo Higuaín? What do you mean, “no”? He played at River Plate after all. And what about Xabi Alonso? I can see a few hands raised, but not following Real Sociedad in the early 2000s is understandable. Now what do all three of these players have in common?

First, they are or were among the best players in the world at their peak. More importantly, they peaked. They plateaued. This isn’t a bad thing (after all, they were great players), but I use that word because it demonstrates a universal fact: that everyone peaks. Everyone footballer past, present or future has a point in their career where they haven’t been better and they never will be better. Most players also peak around the same age. Lewandowski is peaking around now, age 29, Higuaín around 27-28, and Alonso peaked age 26 (but that peak lasted a long time). Of course, it varies from player to player and from position to position, but saying that most players peak in their late 20’s would be far from fiction.

The thing I’ve omitted is how players got to their peak. You can’t numerically measure a player’s ability over time (although the folks at GoalImpact do a fantastic job), but we can imagine what a graph would look like. It would start pretty low, go uphill, then shoot up a lot, and eventually level off into a slow climb. That last part is what interests me the most. While most players reach their peak in their late 20’s, they reach the “class” of their peak (a level very close to their peak) in their mid-20’s. Lewandowski has gotten better with age, but he isn’t worlds away from his Dortmund self. The same goes for Higuain and Alonso, who were both already great players in their mid-20s, before their climb petered out.

In 1885, French author Emile Zola argued strongly against the notion of predeterminism with his novel Germinal, where coal miners free themselves from the idea that their life is determined for them in advance by their inheritance and social class. Predeterminism is an inherently religious notion that says that life is set out for you in advance and whatever you do has already been set for you by God. It resembles Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theories regarding the lack of self-determination. Whether you believe in predeterminism or not, one could suppose that everything that will happen in your life will happen anyway, whether you have control over your actions or not (a light form of predeterminism). This concept intrigues me as it can be applied to the idea of a footballer’s “peak”.

Essentially, a player will near his peak at some point or another, whether that be at age 22 or at age 29.

To illustrate this idea, my good friend Abdul pointed out the perfect example: Theo Walcott. I had discussed my hatred of potential with Abdul, and he acutely pointed out that Theo Walcott checks all the boxes for the problems with the “potential” craze. Walcott was really good at a surprisingly young age. When he was called up for the World Cup, Walcott fever spread throughout the UK. You couldn’t go through the day without seeing headlines likening Walcott to Messi. Walcott fever was all about potential. In reality, Walcott neared his peak in his early 20s, and while his numerous injuries makes his career path hard to distinguish, he’s had a continued peak since then. Understandably, with expectations for him so high, Walcott brings up bad memories for many Arsenal fans, but it’s not like he’s bang-average either. Let’s imagine Walcott’s career with five years added to him. He breaks through in his mid 20s and he reaches his peak in his late 20s. Even though his theoretical peak is as high as it is, Walcott’s place in the world (and more importantly among the Arsenal faithful) would be different: he’d be a good player, nothing more, nothing less.

Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy defies the "potential" model.

The perfect example of the latter is Jamie Vardy. We all remember Vardy’s record-breaking 2015-16 season, but nobody remembers a 20-year old Vardy because he was playing in Stocksbridge. The thing is, that didn’t stop him from going on to do great things, he just neared his peak way later than other players. Does Vardy’s name bring up the same negative connotations Walcott’s name does? Absolutely not, even though Walcott played at the same level for a longer time.

This brings me onto the problem with “potential”: it hampers the development of young players.

I’m not the first or the last person to point out that the press put way too much weight on young players’ shoulders, but they’re not the only ones. The hipsters and scouts are culprits too. Yes, I’m talking about you. You may have had good intentions when you said that South American midfielder who moved to Europe has a bright future ahead of him, but just because he’s playing well at a young age doesn’t mean his peak is further away, it just means he’s playing really well at a young age. There is barely correlation or even causation between a player’s ability at the age of 20 and their peak, as it is mere coincidence.

This is where you say “hey wait a minute, Jamie Vardy may have been really bad until his late 20s but all the good players I know started to peak in their early 20s!” and you’re right. But so did everyone else. Remember Thomas Sørensen? He neared his peak in his mid 20s. So did Glen Whelan, Charlie Adams, Blaise Matuidi, Gareth McAuley and all those other mediocre players that make up the vast majority of footballers. Jamie Vardy and Theo Walcott are exceptions to the rule just as much as Lionel Messi is. Messi has a god given talent and flaunted it from his earliest age onward, but that doesn’t mean every other young player who can earn a first team call-up is.

So if you want to talk exceptions, be my guest. But let’s stop with this stupid notion that every good young player is definitely going to be a good old player, because it’s just wrong. Unless you’re talking about Pione Sisto because then you’re entirely right. Otherwise, “potential” is and will remain a false god used to accord young players more attention than is good for them.