There was a fascinating discussion on my Twitter timeline yesterday, related to the observation that even though Kroos and Modric are more “talented,” Rakitic consistently gets the better of them in big-match situations. The topic turned to talent, and definitions of talent. The link is here if anyone is interested in it.
The definition of “talent” will vary according to each evaluator. For me, talent is potential, an innate aptitude for a task. Training hones that talent. Yet the reason the history of sport is filled with talented athletes who have never made it is because talent is only the first part of the equation.
La Masia finds talented tykes and trains them into fully grown assassins. But the reason La Masia is best known for making professionals, rather than Barça first-teamers, is because of the gap between talent and the rest of the stuff. Gai Assulin was talented. More talented than Sergi Roberto. The former is knocking around somewhere, the latter is in the Barça first team.
Andre Gomes is more talented than Paulinho. Yet the former didn’t make the squad for the Classic, while the latter was an integral part of the positive result.
Talent simply means that a player has the necessary skills to perform a task. What makes Messi, or Iniesta so much more than talented begins with training, which hones talent into something that is useful. It’s running, it’s passing, it’s shooting, it’s making complicated actions rote. La Masia doesn’t train players as much as it trains their minds and bodies to have a Pavlovian reaction. Ball=correct decision. Then there are levels of talent. Messi is more talented, meaning his potential for execution of the task of playing football, is higher than many other players. So training Messi means that his talent now has a foundation of rote, right action.
The gap exists in talent vs execution. What makes Messi so extraordinary is that his talent and execution curves match. Messi is a freak because of this attribute. A great many players can see things, even try things. Messi sees them, tries them and executes them. Tiger Woods at his apogee was the same way. He hit shots that no other golfer would consider because he had talent, coupled with an un golferlike body. He was an athlete who was talented at the game of golf, so his potential as a function of that talent was higher. Look at the goal that Messi scored in the Classic. To hit that ball from that distance, with that curve and accuracy is amazing. To do it at that singular moment, under immense pressure, verges on superhuman.
Barça has a great many talented players. Every player on the first team is talented. Some are more talented than others, but talent isn’t the issue. Execution is. Gomes is an immensely talented player who has been gifted with the wrong body and head. If he was Iniesta’s size, he would be a monster. Perhaps. Because he also has a mental fragility that allows him to be a genius in training, with nothing on the line, and a mess in matches, with everything on the line. Execution and execution under pressure are things that define how talent is viewed.
Paulinho’s biggest talent might be understanding exactly what he is, exactly what his role is. He rarely deviates from that role, which makes him a very effective tool. This task is required, and Paulinho is the tool. Gomes can outdribble, outpass, outcontrol, outeverything of footballing value compared to Paulinho. But sometimes, execution trumps talent.
Coaches see talent and develop blind spots. Luis Enrique kept playing Gomes because he saw the talent, saw the potential, kept waiting for it, believing that if he used it and kept using it, this time it would click. It never did. Valverde wasn’t as patient, because Gomes wasn’t his transfer. He saw the same talent, but also saw the execution. Deulofeu is at Watford because of the talent vs execution gap.
Talent excites us, talent also frustrates us. Unfulfilled potential bums us out, particularly because we’re greedy. We want every talented player that our team touches to succeed, to be everything that we want them to be. It explains the rage at failed transfers in so many cases. Hope often turns to anger when it dies.
Speaking of talent and unfulfilled potential, poor Ousmane Dembele, with the best seat in the house for the weekend’s Classic, seat being the operative word. Everybody wonders why he isn’t being used, when the answer is as plain as the noses on our faces. He isn’t going to play regularly for Valverde until he understands the value of ball control and defending. He has the pace and ability to solve problems at both ends of the pitch. But he defends like he is still on page one of the instruction manual, and Valverde values not conceding silly goals too much to risk using Dembele on a regular basis, particularly against a team such as Real Madrid.
He is talented. Crazy talented. So talented that we salivate at the prospect of him charging at opponent back lines, so much so that we forget the prospect of opponents charging at our back line.
Barça is in a unique situation at present, because the first layer of its press is essentially ineffective. Suarez stands there and glowers, and Messi picks his spots. With two players who aren’t devoted to defending, Busquets becomes the first layer of the press. Look at the first Real Madrid goal. Once Kroos got past Busquets, it was off to the races. The best Barça press was with Henry and Eto’o, because they were both quick, fast and indefatigable. It was chaos even before the opponents got to the second layer of the press, with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Valverde is not going to regularly play a third attacker who can’t defend, no matter his talent and potential.
Dembele is also continuing the fine tradition of right player, wrong team. You don’t buy a player like Dembele if you’re going to play JDP. Why have him standing around making triangles? You remove the fundamental value of his game. At Dortmund he was a giant pile of “Wheeee!” He didn’t have to defend, didn’t have to do anything except raise hell when he had the ball, then wait to get the ball when he didn’t have it. Suddenly at Barça he has to stand still to receive the exact right pass, already know what to do with the ball when it gets to him, then get ready to do it again. Jurgen Klopp quipped that he was “interested” in Dembele, for good reason. That “heavy metal” football would find him in his element.
Will we ever see the best version of Dembele at Barça? Doubtful. The way the team plays, the way that supporters want the team to play isn’t conducive to seeing that player. Look at what Neymar did to the way the team played, with the blessing of Luis Enrique and the disapproval of a great many supporters. Chaotic at times, and the nexus of attack shifted to the wing. Why? That is where the ball was. People asked, “Where is the midfield?” Neymar had the ball. The rest is academic.
When Dembele is fully fit, the complexity for him will be integration. But he is also going to have to play the game in a way that assures his coach. If Griezmann happens, life will get even more complicated. For now, etch a place for Dembele on the All Potential team.
P.S. I wrote something longer on Dembele’s situation for EIFSoccer.com. Look for it soon.