In the World Cup, Potential is not the Key

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The impossible jobs are the ones we dream on the most. Selecting a perfectly balanced group of 23 players who can accommodate all the different game situations that may arise. And often comes a tough decision between a young fella with loads of potential and a more experienced player whose physical standards are perhaps beyond their prime. This week, we’re here to tell you that, in most cases, potential is not the key. Experience pays off.

This is not to say that sheer talent cannot propel a team to achieve fantastic results – we all know that is true. Bun when it comes to these big international competitions, by projecting our favorite youngsters’ future success in our minds, we get caught up in what players will be instead of focusing on what they can provide today. As excitable and emotional creatures that we are, as football fans, we struggle to understand that potential performance does not equal actual performance. And that is okay, it’s a normal mistake.

Factually speaking, there is no statistical evidence of correlation between the average age of a national team’s roster and their success in the biggest international competition of this planet. Both younger and older squads have lifted the so-desired trophy. Then again, when looking solely at age, we are looking at it the wrong way. It is not about age, it’s about experience. Although one is linked to the other, they do not represent the same dimension. How many times have we seen veteran players compromise their teams through childish mistakes? Or witnessed a youngster that is already a regular pick in his club’s main squad and shows an above-average level of composure and intelligence on the pitch? It’s hard to forget how an experienced Italy side won the 2006 World Cup with a good deal of starters in their latter career stages…or so we thought. Gigi Buffon, Francesco Totti and Andrea Pirlo would still bring joy to fans for several years to come.

When teams already have talent and physical prowess, no coach wants to add age per se. They want to add experience. That is because, with experienced players (not necessarily older players), they usually get:

  • Tactical Consistency: In general, players who have disputed both season-long competition and knockout stages of relevant cups are more aware of their individual role within the team’s tactical structure and the movements required in both offensive and defensive dynamics. In other words, they know their place on the pitch. Stats from the Barclays Premier League show that, in average, defenders are 2,7 years older than midfielders and 4,2 years older than wingers and forwards (goalkeepers are still the oldest position). Even if age itself is not the deciding factor, we observe players in the backline refining their positioning throughout their careers – positioning errors are the no.1 cause of conceded goals;
  • Emotional Intelligence: It is also easy to forget that, even in high-level football competitions, we are watching athletes that are really…young people. Despite all that they achieve, more than 60% of this year’s World Cup is in their 20’s, some of them even in their teenage years. As we mature, we usually gain a better sense of emotional control; we take less rushed decisions and, with the right guidance, become better leaders. In a game where so much revolves about your mind and the ability to set it in the right direction, it’s not hard to see why we admire the poise of a strong mental skillset.

There is potentially a game-changing factor that may disrupt everything we have been talking about so far: mental and tactical aspects of training are being introduced earlier in players’ careers, who now have levels of maturity in the field at the age of 21 that we were only used to see in a handful of well-grown 30 year olds.

As a final exercise, let’s look at the last 2 FIFA World Cups to better grasp this recent trend: In 2010, champions Spain were the 6th youngest team with an average age of just under 26 years – again, they definitely had potential on their side, but most importantly, despite the young age average, they had experience all across the board. Besides Carles Puyol’s inbred leadership (32 at the time), Xavi (30) and Iker Casillas (29), the vast majority of the younger players in the lineups were already crucial pieces in their top-flight clubs, including Sergio Ramos (24), Sergio Busquets (21) and Piqué (23).

In 2014, a very similar picture. Germany were the 6th team with the lower average age (26,3 years) – but it is almost common knowledge that the German approach to footballers’ development is just top class, focusing on the fundamentals, strengthening the mental side of their game to create a fantastic fusion with their technical abilities and giving them minutes in top competitions early in their careers, rarely drowning youngsters in endless loan streaks. It was not just Miroslav Klose (36 back then) and Philip Lahm (30) who provided experience; Kroos (24), Müller (24) and Özil (25) were established superstars at the time, all of them. After the unforgettable 7-1 against hosts Brazil, they defeated honourable runners-up Argentina…the oldest team in the competition (28,9).

Potential is, after all, as useful as the ability one has to extract it. That’s interesting to wonder about, isn’t it? And yes, age is just a number…but experience is not, and you cannot really buy it at the corner’s grocery store.

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