Potential, and realising that potential
In 2005 on GlobalF1 we came up with a great way of explaining how well F1 drivers had performed over a season. On the one side, you had talent potential – the maximum a particular driver was capable of. On the other was talent realised – how much of that potential that the driver had used over the course of the season. For instance, in 2006 we looked at Juan Pablo Montoya, evidently a very talent driver but one who had underperformed to the point of being sacked. Compare that to his replacement Pedro de la Rosa, not a particularly talented driver but one who made the most of that talent in getting the results he did.
The same can be applied to football – talent potential referring to the amount of talent within the playing squad, and talent realised being how well the team have done taking that potential into account. Obviously this is something that cannot be quantified but it’s relatively straight-forward to judge.
This can be applied in a number of situations this year. Take the Premier League title race. The vast majority of rational observers would say that Manchester City’s squad is far superior to Manchester United, not only in terms of the best 11 players but in terms of the number of realistic options for replacements. And yet, as it stands, they have the same number of points going into the final match. The obvious conclusion is that United have realised far more of their talent potential than City.
Add in City’s considerable budget, spending £1 billion on transfers and wages, and their disappointing showing in the Champions League and Europa League where they ought to have progressed further given the talent they had at their disposal, and I don’t see how you can consider it a genuinely successful season for them. What is saving them from further criticism is the fact that they haven’t won the English league since 1968. This should largely be an irrelevance, though – when you’ve got £1 billion to spend on assembling a football side capable of winning the league and other trophies, you buy players you believe are capable of doing just that. A lack of a winning mentality in the club shouldn’t matter if you’ve got free reign to buy who you want. And there are plenty of players in that squad who have experience of winning trophies, because that’s usually why they have been bought by Man City.
So why are they under-performing? Who is to blame for this? I don’t blame the players. Ultimate responsibility has to lie with the manager – he picked the players he wanted to buy, and then picked the players he wanted to play in each match and the tactics to go with it.
I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that City’s form suddenly took a dive during January when it was around then that his tactics and team selections suddenly became very negative, as they had been the previous season: occasionally he was playing Barry, de Jong and Milner, the three most negative midfielders they have, all together, and somehow expecting to create chances and score goals. They also lost the excellent Yaya Toure to the Africa Cup of Nations and failed to replace him, something that shouldn’t have affected them too much considering the money Man City have had to spend on building the best squad possible (and this is also a criticism that can be levelled at Messi-reliant Barcelona and Ronaldo-reliant Real Madrid).
Over-reliance on one player despite having £1 billion to spend is poor management. Spending £1 billion and then choosing to play the most negative players possible is the coward’s way out. Mancini is a coward. The best managers are brave. I’m not saying he is the only one, but the inevitable praise he is about to receive from the media when Man City clinch the title next weekend (as they almost certainly will) should be viewed with suspicion. Jose Mourinho is a good comparison because ultimately they are rivals in European football right now and they have been in similar situations. And Mourinho has built sides that are brilliant in every area and not overly-reliant on individuals – his current Real side is an exception because Ronaldo is an exception, one of the best footballers ever.
The truth is Mancini has form for underachievement. Yes, he won Serie A a few times with Inter but this is widely considered winning it by default in the aftermath of Calciopoli, which crippled the other major Italian clubs. A true representation of the situation came with his dismissal, for Moratti knew that they were underachieving in Europe – it came in 2008, after a season that was eerily similar to this one, when Inter blew an 11 point lead over Roma but still managed to just stumble over the line in the end. A year later, Mourinho guided the side to a winning margin of 10 points over much stiffer opposition with largely the same group of players. A further year on and they achieved the first Treble in Italian football history.
Mancini’s failure to deliver in Europe at Man City for two years in a row thus should not be a particularly big surprise, and nor should nearly throwing away what ought to have been a relatively simple procession to the title in the winter of this season – this season couldn’t have been more perfectly set up for them, as United had their weakest squad for many years thanks to Glazernomics and were further hit by injury, Arsenal started way behind after an embarrassing start to the season, Chelsea had their worst season under Abramovich, and the form of Spurs dropped off in the final few months. It shouldn’t have been a particularly challenging season – yes, United did well to hang on to their coattails for so long, but with the manpower they have, City should have finished them off far sooner instead of giving them a head-start and then waiting until they tripped up. Next year may be a lot more difficult, and it may prove to be a more accurate reflection of where he is taking the club.
Mancini’s time at City has so far been continuous under-performance compared to their talent potential in the league and Europe peppered with the odd bit of silverware. You cannot begrudge the players their winners’ medals this year – they have been the best team in the league this season, as United lost their claim to that by losing to Wigan, throwing away a win at Everton and then performing poorly at Eastlands after Ferguson’s dreadful team selection. However, all the evidence suggests this has been achieved in spite of Mancini, not because of him – there are plenty of managers out there who, given the same money or even the same players, would have had this one wrapped up long ago. Mancini’s Man City have a high talent potential but the talent realised is average
The other situation is closer to my heart. Torquay missed out on automatic promotion to League One yesterday by 3 points, and so we are heading into yet another play-off campaign. Our performance against Hereford yesterday was very disappointing, with the first half in particular ranking as one of the worst half performances I have ever seen from my team. And yet I have been criticised for being critical of the team – apparently I should just appreciate the fact that we have “over-achieved” compared to what we expected at the start of the season.
Again, it’s an issue of talent potential versus talent realised. It’s a matter of fact that while a club can over-achieve, players cannot – no one can achieve more than what they are capable of, because that simply doesn’t make sense. You can only achieve what the players are capable of or less. Clearly by finishing 5th we were capable of finishing 5th, otherwise we wouldn’t have done so. The fact that we have achieved more than expected means that the expectations were simply wrong – we were stupid to fail to consider the possibility that we might actually have a very good side. After all, finishing 5th fits in to our recent history – that’s now 4 top 6 finishes in the last 5 years, alongside several good cup runs.
The question should be whether or not we were capable of doing any better, and I believe that we were capable of getting automatically promoted. We had a very good run of results through March which put us in a very good position going into the final month or so. But the last 5 matches were disastrous – just 3 points from those matches, which included throwing away a win at home to Crewe last week and then the terrible first half performance at Hereford. Holding on for a minute or two more against Crewe would have put us 2 points ahead of Crawley going into the final game – we still would have had to have won but we would have gone in with a different mental approach (as would Crawley) and that could have been crucial.
There is a difference between being critical and being negative. I have praised the players all season, and evidently I have a far higher (and more accurate) estimation of their talents than those Torquay fans who said from the beginning we wouldn’t be particularly competitive this year. I am critical of the performance yesterday because I know the players can do better – and it is the players who made the errors, as Martin Ling picked the best team he could have put out as usual. In terms of talent potential, we were good enough to get promoted. But I don’t believe the players have totally maximised that.
It’s disappointing – we could still do it through the play-offs, but I am doubtful, as our momentum is now gone. Even if we do get promoted anyway, it will still feel slightly hollow, knowing that we threw it away in the league despite everything falling in our favour – why do we deserve it?
Put it that way and it sounds rather like Man City’s season…though having said that, we don’t quite have as much money to spend…